Thursday, March 1, 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 of lagana).  Laganes are a type of crunchy, semi leavened bread that's eaten by Greeks only once a year, on Clean Monday.  What does "Clean Monday" mean, though?

Let's set up the scene:  Apokriés, Αποκριές (the word means "saying goodbye to meat"), is the Greek 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 it into its calendar, so two millenia later it's still one big, big 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 might become a trend. Cheese Sunday is so named because everyone eats cheese and dairy products, to say goodbye to those as well.  

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, that's 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 Easter Sunday, the movable feast, which this year for us Greeks falls on April 15. Therefore, Clean Monday is so named because it's a day to cleanse both the body and the soul.  In Greece it's a public holiday.  The weather is still nippy and windy, but 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 serious business.  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 bakery shelves are empty, the laganes are sold out.  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!  I baked mine for the first time this year and they came out great!!! I am proud of myself.  Even my mother loved them, and she's hard to please. She said they were better than hers.  
Here is a picture of my mom's lagana.  She used more yeast in hers, plus she let the dough rise twice.  Although it was good, it tasted more like regular bread.  

Now mom wants my recipe.  Well, mom, I got it out of an old cookbook that you gave me as a gift some twenty years ago.  Remember?  That large volume with the beautiful pictures you bought in Greece for me? You want the recipe? Let me think about that....    



Ingredients:

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

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.
  • Shift the flour with the salt and sugar into a large bowl.
After the dough is mixed, place it on a floured surface to begin kneading it
  • Make a well in the center 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.  When it’s soft and no longer sticky 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 oil and sprinkle with sesame seeds.  For brushing the tops I used a combination of canola and olive oil.

  • Bake them in a preheated 375º F oven for about 35 minutes, until they are golden.  Half way through baking rotate the pans, and if you like, brush a little more oil on the tops of the loaves.  I did this, and I used just olive oil this time.

  • The laganes will have that unbelievable freshly baked bread scent. It's 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.

3 comments:

  1. Ana, I really like the way this bread sounds. It is one that I have not heard of and I am curious to give it a try. I loved the background you provided about Greek fasting. This was a terrific post. I hope you have a great day. Blessings...Mary

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  2. Greek Girl from QueensMarch 2, 2012 at 10:32 AM

    Ana, these breads are absolutely beautiful even just to look at! And how delicious they must be for your mom to tell you that they're even better than the ones she has made? Wow! That's high praise! I loved reading this post, Ana. As I was reading it, I was seeing it all in my mind's eye. I love cookbooks that have, in addition to the actual recipe, some background and history and a personal anecdote or family tradition to accompany it. I truly believe you should write your own Greek cookbook, my dear Ana. You've a wonderful writing style, and express yourself so beautifully. I'm going to go back now and re-read this post. I may even summon up enough courage to make some myself (I've never tried making these, I have to confess). Thanks for sharing, and have a lovely weekend, my friend.

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  3. Bread, another favorite of mine. Looks delicious Ana. And as usual I am sure they were. One large step for Anakind to have your mom say they were better than hers. Even though we already knew that.

    I am waiting for the cookbook to come also.

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