The first day of Lent in Greece is a bit of an oddity. For many, a strict Lenten fast will be observed in reverence to the solemnity of the time leading up to Pascha (Easter), while also frolicking and picnicking, and generally having a jolly good time!
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This first day is known as Καθαρά Δευτέρα (kah-thah-RAH thef-TEH-rah), or Clean Monday. It is the crossover point between all the pre-Lenten festivities of Απόκριες (ah-POH-kree-ehs, the Greek word for Carnival, think Mardi Gras) and the beginning of a somber fourty day period leading up to the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.
The day is a holiday in and of itself. Businesses will be closed and people will flock outside for all the festivities. People will wish one another “Καλή Σαρακοστή” (kah-LEE sah-rah-koh-STEE) which means a “a good forty days”. It is a day families spend together, with food (of course!), and one key common activity shared across the country being flying kites. Spring time is filled with blustery days, so this becomes the perfect time to do so.
The food prepared for the day’s picnics will be Lenten, meaning it will be meatless (including no fish, but shellfish is okay), dairy and egg free, and may even have no olive oil or wine (I explain it all in my post about Great Lent here). Depending on where you are, you may also see people serving up a type of flatbread called λαγάνα (lah-GAH-nah) that looks a lot like Italian focaccia bread with a hefty sprinkling of sesame seeds.
Traditionally, the bread was made unleavened without the use of yeast, but now it’s more typical to see recipes that use yeast, like mine below. If a strict fast is being followed for Clean Monday, the bread will also be made without any olive oil, though other oils could be used. Either way, it is a delicious bread perfect for soaking up those leftover juices on your dinner plate, simply dunking into olive oil for a little snack, or for keeping as a treat reserved for this one special day each year!
Greek Lagana Bread Recipe
For the bread:
- 1 pkg. dry yeast (about 2 1/4 tsp.)
- 2 cups warm water (no more than 110 F)
- 1 tsp. granulated sugar
- 1/4 cup olive oil or vegetable oil (optional, lagana can be made without any oil)
- 6 cups flour, either all purpose or bread flour
- 2 1/2 tsp. salt
For the glaze:
- 1 tsp. granulated sugar
- 2 Tbsp. warm water
- sesame seeds
Dissolve the yeast and sugar in the warm water and set aside to “proof”. It is okay if the yeast is a little lumpy, it will eventually dissolve. You should see some bubbles form at the surface within a few minutes.
Measure out the flour by fluffing it up with a whisk and gently scooping it into your measuring cup. Put the flour into a bowl, and mix in the salt.
Put the yeast mixture into a bowl and add the oil, if using. Add the flour and mix to combine either by hand, or in a stand mixer. Knead the dough until it comes away from the sides of the bowl cleanly. Place the dough on a very lightly floured surface and allow to rest for five minutes. This gives the flour a chance to absorb more of the moisture and become less sticky.
Knead again until the dough feels smooth, about 5 to 10 minutes. Do not be tempted to add more flour or your bread will be too dry. Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl. If you are doing strict fast and want to be traditional, you don’t need the bowl to be oiled but the dough will stick a little. It’s nothing a scraper can’t handle, and you may not even need it! Cover the bowl with a clean towel, and allow to rise in a warm place away from drafts until doubled in size (about 3 – 4 hours).
Once the dough has doubled, turn it out onto a very lightly floured surface and knead for a minute. Divide the dough into two equal parts. Shape each part into an oval about a 1/2 inch thick. You can use a rolling pin if you want, but I do mine with my hands. I find it helps to pick the dough up by the edges and dangle it to let gravity help spread the dough out.
Lay each oval on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and place them back in a warm, draft free place to rise again, about an hour or until the dough is about 1 inch high.
Preheat the oven to 375 F. Use your fingers to make gentle indents all over the dough. Dissolve the sugar in the warm water for the glaze. Use a pastry brush to evenly cover each loaf with a thin layer of the glaze and sprinkle sesame seeds over the dough. The glaze will help the seeds to stick to the loaf.
Bake each loaf for 25 minutes or until they are a light golden brown. If your pans don’t fit next to each other in the oven, you can bake them on different racks and switch them halfway through the baking time. Remove them to cooling racks once they are done. As soon as they are cool they are ready to enjoy!