Updated: Sep 13, 2019
On March 9, the day on which we commemorate the 40 Martys of Sebaste, it is customary for families to make forty zhavoronki, little breads which are made in the form of little skylarks. These little birds are heralds of spring in Eastern Europe, and it is fitting that they should commemorate the "new life" of spring as well as the new life these martyrs found with Christ after their souls flew up to heaven during martyrdom.
The Prologue of Ohrid is a wonderful book! Each day it chronicles the life of the martyr commemorated on that day and gives a meditation or a prayer or poem to consider for meditation. Today it tells us of these forty soldiers who, rather than deny Christ, were sentenced to sit in the middle of a shallow lake while the frost came and froze the water all around them. As hypothermia began to set in, the guards maliciously set up a steaming hot tub on the shore of the lake in the hopes of enticing the men to deny Christ. One poor soul decided the torment was too great and he came ashore. Just then, a miracle occurred. Thirty nine wreaths appeared in the sky and landed upon the men who remained in the lake, and the water in the lake began to warm like a bath! One of the pagan guards was so touched by the miracle that he too wanted to believe in such a God and he jumped into the lake with the others in the hopes of being accepted to their number. As he did, another wreath appeared and crowned him as well. The men spent the entire night swimming in this warm bath until the next day when the judges saw that they were still alive and ordered their legs be broken and for them to be thrown back into the lake to drown, their bodies not to be recovered. This is when the souls of the forty martyrs of Sebaste flew happily up to God.
However, it was not God's will that the bodies of these great men be dishonored in this way. The next night, when their fellow believers went to the lake to pray for their friends, they saw that the bones of the men had begun to float to the surface, glowing brightly in the night so that every last one of them could be recovered and properly and honorably buried.
Because this feast occurs during the Great Fast, we will make a simple Lenten bread dough today in order to make our little skylarks. You can opt to enjoy them as a savory roll with your dinner, or glaze them with a light powdered sugar icing and eat them as a sweet roll for breakfast or after supper.
2 tsp active dry yeast
2 Tbsp sugar
3 cups warm water
2 Tbsp salt
8 (?) cups flour (we usually use whole wheat flour...and we may use a little more or less to get the dough to just the right texture )
Combine the yeast, sugar and warm water (about 100 degrees) in a large mixing bowl and allow the yeast to proof. Once bubbles begin to form, add the salt and the flour, mixing as you add, until the dough just begins to come away from the sides of the bowl completely. Knead for 10 minutes, adding a little flour if needed as the dough becomes very elastic and soft, but not at all sticky. Cover the bowl with a damp tea-towel and rest in a warm place until doubled in bulk (about an hour). After the dough has risen, turn it out onto a floured surface and begin to make 40 pieces, first cutting the dough in half, then in half again, and rolling 10 equal pieces from each quarter of the dough. Roll each portion between the palms of your hands to form a rope. Then tie a knot in each piece, making the end left on top to be the head of your bird, and the end on the bottom to be the tail. Place each bird onto a parchment-lined baking sheet, and using a fork, press the tail end flat. Then shape the beak from the top end and use a toothpick or other skewer to form the eyes of your birds. Be sure there are 40 going into the oven! One for each holy martyr! Bake these at 375 degrees for about 20 minutes until they are a light golden brown.