Thursday, 1 March 2012

ONE LAGANA, TWO LAGANES (λαγάνα, λαγάνες): A Greek Bread for Lent


Every year, on Clean Monday, comes the time to make laganes (that's the plural form of the word lagana). Laganes are a type of crunchy, semi leavened bread that's eaten by Greeks only once a year, on Clean Monday. But what does "Clean Monday" mean?




Let's set up the scene:  Apokriés, Αποκριές (the word means "saying goodbye to meat"), is the name for the Greek Mardi Gras (Carnival). It's a time of revelry, eating, dancing, drinking and masquerading. Pranksters rule. Carnival has its roots in pagan antiquity when it was a celebration of spring and rebirth. The early Christian church incorporated Carnival into its calendar, therefore, two millennia later it's still one big, huge celebration, lasting for almost one week and ending late into the night on Cheese Sunday. Yes, I said Cheese Sunday. No, there are no contests to see who can cut the most cheese (forgive me) although who knows, now that I have mentioned it, it may become a trend. Cheese Sunday is so named because the custom is to eat cheese and dairy products as a final treat prior to the beginning of Lent.  




As the next day dawns, it's time to greet Clean Monday, a day of fasting. After all that partying, a day of fasting is sorely needed. A nice long bath too, so that one is really clean on Clean Monday. However, bathing is not the raison d'etre for Clean Monday. The day ushers in the Greek Orthodox Great Lent, which lasts about 40 days. For those who observe it, Lent is a period of fasting, reflecting, and repenting. It ends on the movable feast that is Easter Sunday. Therefore, Clean Monday is so named because it's a day to cleanse the soul. In Greece, it's a public holiday. The weather is still nippy and windy, and since people have off from work they venture out to parks and to the countryside, and it's a custom to take the kids along and fly kites. What's on the dinner table? Well, Greek fasting is a very serious business. During a fast, the Orthodox church forbids eating meat, dairy or eggs. Basically, one has to become a vegan during religious fasts. On major feast days such as Clean Monday, the eating of shellfish is allowed. One popular dish to eat is mussels with rice. Another eating tradition is the lagana, a bread which contains a only a small amount of yeast.  

Laganes are eaten once and only once a year, on this day, and are kind of synonymous with Clean Monday. People line up at bakeries early in the morning to buy them, hangover or no hangover left over from "Cheese" Sunday. By mid-afternoon, the laganes are sold out and the bakery shelves are empty. Here in the US, we have to make due by baking them at home, a job which is really not that hard. The result is so worth it! This was my first try at baking laganes and they came out great!!! Even my mother loved them, and she's very hard to please. She said they were better than hers, and now she wants my recipe. Well, mother, I got the recipe out of a cookbook that you gave me as a gift all those years ago. Remember? That large volume with the beautiful pictures I asked you to buy for me in Greece? Here's the recipe: 


Ingredients:

1 tablespoon yeast
1 cup warm water
4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more flour for dusting
1/2 cup of good vegetable oil
2 teaspoons sugar plus a pinch of sugar
1 teaspoon of salt
3 tablespoons sesame seeds
olive oil for brushing the loaves

Decorate by pressing your fingertips into the dough so that dots are formed. Push hard to make deep indentations that won’t disappear as the laganes bake. Prior to baking, brush the tops of the loaves with olive oil and sprinkle with sesame seeds. 

Directions:

  • Sprinkle the yeast into the warm water and add the pinch of sugar. Leave it for about 20 to 30 minutes until the yeast comes alive and begins to foam.
  • Into a large bowl sift the flour with the salt and sugar.
  • Make a well in the centre of the flour and pour in the oil plus the water with the yeast. Mix with your hands to incorporate, and start creating the dough.  If it’s too dry you will need to add a little more water.
  • Move the dough to a floured surface in order to begin kneading it. Keep kneading until it’s soft and no longer sticky; at that point, it's ready to be formed into loaves. 
  • The loaves can be round or oblong in shape, but they have to be flat, about ½ an inch high. Place them on baking sheets and cover them with clean kitchen towels. In about an hour they should double in size. If not, let them sit a while longer. The leavening process depends a lot on the temperature of the room.  
  • Decorate the loaves by pressing the tips of your fingers into them so that dots are formed. Push hard so as to make deep indentations that won’t disappear as the laganes bake.  Brush the tops of the loaves with olive oil and sprinkle with sesame seeds. 
  • Bake in a preheated 375ºF/190ºC oven for about 35 minutes, until they are golden. Halfway through baking rotate the pans, and if you like, brush a little more oil on the tops of the loaves.  
  • The laganes will have that unbelievable, indescribable freshly baked bread aroma. Isn't irresistible? Eat them the same day while they are fresh. They won't taste as good the next day. If you have some left over, what you can do is freeze them. They will last in the freezer for a good two months.