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.
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....
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
- 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.
- 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.