That the baked goods produced for the holiday by various Christian cultures tend to be built around a shared ingredient base—in most cases, eggs, butter, sugar and yeast—is no coincidence, for these items are among those traditionally abstained from during Lent, the 40-day fasting period that ends with Easter. Additionally, these ingredients can be interpreted as symbols of both the holiday and, more generally, the return of spring; the use of yeast, for instance, is thought to represent Jesus' resurrection, while eggs signify renewal and fertility. Despite their shared components and symbolism, though, the six Easter treats highlighted here vary in ingredient balance, spicing and shaping, making each unique.
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Where to find Easter sweets
With its full, round shape and "pleated" surface (compliments of the Bundt pan it's baked in), this golden, raisin-studded cake shares its name with the Polish word for grandmother based on its resemblance to an old-school skirt. Though typically eaten as a post-Easter dinner dessert, it's not overly sweet, though it is rich, thanks to its high butter content as well as the rum bath it receives after baking, a touch that prolongs its freshness while imparting a pleasant boozy kick.
Where to get it Delightful Pastries (1710 N Wells St; 5927 W Lawrence Ave; 131 N Clinton Ave) turns out a high-risen, pillowy Easter babka ($8.49) with a lovely yellow crumb and a luxurious rum scent. Available now through Easter.
Although the exact flavor of an Easter hoska (also spelled houska) is dictated by the baker's inclinations—some enhance the mildly sweet bread with aromatic nutmeg, almonds and lemon rind, while others limit the mix-ins to plain old raisins—each has a braided shape said to represent the three strands of the Christian Holy Trinity. Some Chicago versions also share what seems to be a local adaptation: multicolored dough strands perhaps meant to echo the tradition of dyeing Easter eggs, or merely to add color to the holiday table.
Where to get it With its mix of super-saturated pastel colors, a slice of the dense, elaborately braided Easter hoska ($5.85) from Southwest Side institution Weber's Bakery (7055 W Archer Ave) calls to mind Care Bears camo—and begs to be made into fanciful French toast. Available now through Easter.
British hot cross buns
In years past, this handheld, cross-adorned goodie was assigned all kinds of mystic qualities: It was thought that a batch baked on Good Friday would never mold, that a sample hung in the kitchen could ward off bad luck in the year ahead, and even that it had medicinal properties if dried and grated. While such claims may be suspect, there's no questioning the comfort that one of these richly spiced, headily scented buns, served warm in accordance with its name, can impart.
Where to get it Throughout the Easter season, Dinkel's (3329 N Lincoln Ave) bakes up trays of these buns (98 cents each) shot through with raisins and citrus fruit and capped off with a sweet glaze, a dusting of streusel and hand-piped crosses of custard, apricot, cherry, lemon or raspberry.
This fluffy cake-bread hybrid is distinguished by its tall, cylindrical profile—sometimes likened to a lofty church dome—which is derived from a special tin or, failing that, a coffee can. Once baked, the fruit-speckled, citrus-scented kulich is crowned with a sweet glaze and often marked with the letters XB, from the Russian for "Christ is Risen." Traditionally, it is then blessed by a priest and eaten for Easter breakfast and, later, spread with a sweet Easter cheese called paskha for dessert.
Where to get it Beginning April 12, Lana's Dazzling Desserts (321 E Dundee Rd, Wheeling) will offer kulich in both miniature ($2.99) and regular ($11.99) sizes. With their impressive height and pretty dried-fruit topping, these cakes can do double-duty as Easter dinner centerpieces.
Ricotta-laden pastries are synonymous with Italy's Calabria region, so it's no wonder that standard Easter baking ingredients like eggs and butter take a backseat to creamy cheese in this rich pie, a Neapolitan specialty. In addition to candied fruit and orange blossom water, which contribute a wonderfully zesty scent, the pie's filling incorporates a cooked grain (traditionally wheat, though rice or barley can also be used), giving it a complex texture. This mixture is baked in a shell of short crust pastry and served up Easter morning.
Where to get it Master of ricotta goodness Sicilian Bakery (4632 N Cumberland Ave) turns out rice-based pastiera ($6.50/pound) in two sizes: 7-inch and 8-inch. Available only the week of Easter, these pies have an extremely short season, so take advantage while it lasts.
With its braided formation and gleaming egg-wash shellac, this Greek bread bears a striking resemblance to hoska. One whiff of its pale crumb, though, and tsoureki's unique personality becomes instantly distinct: it's spiced with mahlepi, a bittersweet substance derived from cherry seeds and, in many cases, mastiha, a pine-scented tree resin. The result is an aroma and taste that's sweetly almond-y, with a bit of citrus-pine bite.
Where to get it Shaped into braided rounds and topped with slivered almonds, the tsoureki ($8.45/pound) at Greektown's Pan Hellenic Pastry Shop (322 S Halsted St) are lovely to behold. The real beauty is on the inside, though: a brioche-like, pull-apart texture and an intoxicating mahlepi-cardamom scent.