Today is the halfway point of Orthodox Lent, and is the feast of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste. These were soldiers serving under Agricola who chose to suffer death by standing in freezing water rather than give up their faith. The Romans ordered heated baths to be built to entice the Christians to relent and accept the pagan faith, and one of the men who would be martyrs stepped out of the water to become warm, betraying his faith in Christ. One of the soldiers guarding the martyrs saw forty crowns of martyrdom descending from Heaven, and stripped, ran into the water, and joined the Christians in order to claim the rejected crown. The martydom served as his baptism.
This is the time that the larks return in Russia, and so to commemorate the saints, and to rejoice in the Spring, Russians make a vegan treat called “Zhavoronki,” or “Larks.”
My recipe follows.
The feast of the forty martyrs was the first time I ever went to Orthodox vespers, and my goddaughter Emerald is named for one of the martyrs, Saint Smaragdus, whose name means “Emerald.” I love this feast because of the bravery of the martyrs, their contagious love for Christ and each other which spread to their pagan guard, and I also love the ideas of the birds returning. My favorite Shakespearean sonnet is number 29, in which, when the speaker remembers his loved one, his heart “like to the lark at break of day arising/from sullen earth sings hymns at heaven’s gate.”
The poem continues, “For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings/ that then I scorn to change my state with kings.” I like making the larks, then, for my husband, whose love makes everything better. When I grate the orange peel that goes into the dough, I remember that the next orange peel I grate will be for my cheese pascha that I will make for Easter. For today, the whole kitchen fills with a yeasty, wonderful smell. Winter is on the run. Lent is halfway over. The crowns of victory are near. Whether the buns come out beautifully, like my friend’s zhavoronki above, or more like Mothra, like mine, below, from 2011, the making, baking, and sharing of zhavoronki brings us closer to light, Spring, and the Resurrection.
Here’s the recipe. Be uplifted!
Zhavoronki – Lark Buns
• 6 cups flour
• 1 cup sugar
• 2 sticks margarine
• 1 tsp. vanilla extract
• 2 cups warm water
• 1 package dry yeast
• orange zest, to taste
• raisins, for eyes
Mix the warm water, yeast, sugar, and enough of the flour so that you have a batter about as thick as sour cream. Let the batter sit until it has risen slightly and is bubbly.
Add the rest of the flour, the margarine and the orange zest (if using). Knead well (about ten minutes). Place in a greased bowl and let rise until doubled in size.
Using a knife or pastry cutter, divide the dough into 40 pieces. Roll each piece into a long hot dog shape. Tie each piece into a knot. Make one end into the shape of a head for the bird by pinching a beak. The other end will be the tail feathers … with a knife create that look. Put a raisin on each bird for the eye.
Place on a greased baking sheet and bake for 20-30 minutes at 325 degrees.