Saturday, 7 April 2012

Lazarakia (Λαζαράκια)

It's Lazarus Saturday (Σάββατο του Λαζάρου) today. The Holy Week, the last seven days of Great Lent, begins tomorrow on Palm Sunday. According to the story, Lazarus was resurrected by Jesus and bought back to life after four days of being dead.

It's difficult to discuss death with children because it feels awkward. My children have reached the age where they know that death is inevitable, but they have not come close to death themselves. Two of their grandparents had died well before their parents married, another died when they were too young to have any recollections of their grandfather in living form, while the remaining grandparent is very old but seems to carry on as if she were half her age. Every now and then, we hear of an old or sick neighbour who died, but this kind of death does not carry the same weight, nor does it have the same significance as a death in one's own family. When death comes, we find that we are all quite unprepared for it, no matter how much we accept its inevitability.

There is a time for everything. Although I've never made lazarakia before, I now feel the need to. The making of lazarakia, a Greek food custom associated with Lazarus Saturday, is a somewhat appropriate way to introduce the topic of death to children. These spice breads are made to remember Lazarus who was raised from the dead. The dough is made without any animal products - as we are still in the fasting period of Great Lent - and then made into shapes of legless men, whose arms are tied around him, as was the custom in older times, when the dead were wrapped up, so to speak, in a sheet before they were buried.

"Aν Λάζαρο δεν πλάσεις, ψωμί δεν θα χορτάσεις" (Greek saying)
If you never shape dough into Lazarus, you will never have your fill of bread

Lazarus' experiences gave rise to the customs collectively known in Greece as Lazarika. The history of the Lazarika and lazarakia, while all-encompassingly Greek in nature, is not as common in some parts of Greece as it is in other parts, which explains why I'm not familiar with it myself. Most web-based recipes seem to come from the island of Kalimnos, where they are a steadfast tradition. At the children's primary school, they only make koulourakia in the run-up to Easter, never lazarakia, so I believe it isn't a Cretan tradition in the same way that it is in other parts of Greece. But Lazarus' story is an important one as Easter approaches. Lazarus died, and when he came back to life, he told people of what he saw there. Lazarus' death and resurrection forebodes Christ's; it is also the last miracle that Christ performed before his own death and resurrection. Hence the story of Lazarus teaches us that death is a form of new life.

Λάζαρος απενεκρώθη, Lazarus became undead,
Ανεστήθη και σηκώθη. Was resurrected and arose.
Λάζαρος σαβανωμένος Lazarus was shrouded
Και με το κηρί ζωσμένος And all tied up.
-Λάζαρε πες μας τι είδες "Tell us Lazarus, what did you see?
εις τον Άδη που επήγες; When you went to Hades?"
-Είδα φόβους, είδα τρόμους "I saw fears, I saw terrors
είδα βάσανα και πόνους. I saw troubles and pains.
Δώστε μου λίγο νεράκι Give me a little water
Να ξεπλύνω το φαρμάκι So that I may wash off the poison
Της καρδίας, των χειλέων From my heart, my lips
Και μη με ρωτάτε πλέον. And don't ask me anything else.
(From Magdalini's blog)

You can use your own favorite sweet bread dough to make lazarakia, as long as it's lenten (ie there are no eggs, butter or milk in the recipe). The original recipe that I used is in Greek. I've adapted it for my kitchen.
You need:
500g strong flour (or all-purpose flour)
1 sachet of dry yeast (in Greece, this come in 7g packets)
about 3/4 cup warm water
3/4 cup sugar (I used pure maple sugar, a present from a Canadian reader)
3/4 cup raisins (I didn't have any in the house, so I used bitter orange spoon sweet, chopped small)
1/3 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
some whole cloves (these are traditionally used for the eyes)

In a small bowl, place the yeast in the water, add 2 tablespoons of the sugar and 4 tablespoons of the flour, and mix till the yeast dissolves. Allow the yeast to show signs of rising (about 20 minutes).
In a large bowl, place the flour and sugar, spices and raisins, mix them together, make a well in the middle of the bowl and pour in the yeast mixture. Knead well, adding flour/water appropriately to get a dough that is not sticky. Place the dough in an oiled bowl in a warm place, covered with a tea towel, and allow to rise for two hours in a warm oven. (I left the dough in a cold oven and allowed it to rise overnight.)

Shaping the dough is an important task. Divide the dough into ten balls the size of a mandarin (they would each weigh about 100g). From each ball, remove a small piece which will be rolled out like string. Divide this in two (for the arms). The remaining dough ball is shaped into a long oval loaf. (You can make an incision on one edge with kitchen scissors to form legs if desired.) Place the dough string crossed over the body, sticking it down on the underside of the bun. Place the cloves on the other edge, making them look like eyes.

Place the lazarakia on a lightly oiled baking tray and allow to rise for 30 minutes, covered with a tea towel. Brush them very lightly with orange juice or water. Cook them in a moderate pre-heated oven for 30 minutes.

Shaping the lazarakia is a fun way for children to pass their time. People who like to shape cookie, bread and pastry dough will enjoy this exercise. The lazarakia have a special shape, which, thanks to the internet, is not difficult to copy. Even if you can't make your lazarakia today, don't despair. It's not too late to make them tomorrow, because they can be eaten throughout the whole of next week (if indeed they last that long), as they do on the island of Kalymnos.

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