The Saturday of Lazarus, when Jesus raised his friend Lazarus from the dead foreshadows the Resurrection of Jesus. In villages across Greece, young children receive a special treat on that day, Lazarakia, bread shaped like Lazarus, to commemorate the miracle of his resurrection. The Lazarakia are usually decorated with cloves for eyes and are shaped with the arms crossed over the chest to resemble the funeral winding sheet wrapped around the dead for burial. The yeast bread is sweetened with sugar and often has a filling made of ground nuts and raisins, cinnamon and sugar, honey or marmalade. The recipe is basically a raisin bread. Traditionally, the number of Lazarakia made corresponds to the number of children in the family. For those who would like to make them without oil, diluted tahini can be used in the bread recipe, and skip oiling the bowl for the first rise of the dough.
8 cups all-purpose, unbleached flour
3/4 cup Greek extra virgin olive oil (or 1 tablespoon tahini diluted with 3/4 cup lukewarm water)
1 1/3 cups sugar
2 packets active dry yeast (4 1/2 teaspoons)
2 cups lukewarm water, or more as needed
A pinch of salt
For the filling:
2 cups raisins
3/4 cup toasted sesame seeds
1/2 cup ground almonds
1/2 cup ground walnuts
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 tablespoon cognac
In the bowl of a stand mixer, stir together the flour with the olive oil or the tahini diluted with water. Add the sugar, the yeast, the water, and a pinch of salt, and knead using the paddle attachment until the dough forms. Place the dough in a large bowl greased with a little olive oil, turn to coat the dough and cover with plastic wrap or a clean kitchen towel and allow it to rise for at least 2 hours or up to 6 hours.
To prepare the filling, pulse the raisins and sesame seeds in a food processor, until chopped as finely as preferred. Place the ground raisin/sesame seed mixture in a mixing bowl and add the ground almonds, walnuts, cinnamon, and cognac. Stir to combine, then set aside until ready to use.
Once the dough has risen, cut it into pieces about 6 inches long and 2-3 inches wide, and flatten it out and place 2 tablespoons of the filling in the center and fold over the dough to cover the filling. Shape the dough into a little Lazarus by pinching in at the neck to form his head and using two small strips of dough to make his crossed arms as he appears in the icons. Use the whole cloves for his eyes and mouth. Use another small piece of dough to form a strip to wrap around him like swaddling bands. Place on a baking pan covered with wax paper. Continue with the rest of the dough, making sure to place them at least two inches apart as they need space to rise.
Cover the lazarakia on the pan with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel and allow to rise in a warm place for an hour and a half to two hours. Check if the dough has risen enough by pressing the dough, it should rise back immediately. Brush with a little honey diluted with water, and if desired, sprinkle with sesame seeds. Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for about an hour or until lightly golden brown.