Elias Sarkis was nearly finished with the qurban, a liturgical bread used in several Eastern Catholic churches, when he pulled the puffy and slightly tan bread from the oven.
He brushed on rose water — the final touch — while the bread was still hot.
As the cool, fragrant water hit the hot bread, the water sizzled, and steam rose into the air. All of a sudden, the kitchen area of Sarkis’ Soho Bagel Café in Greece’s Stoneridge Plaza smelled like roses.
Meanwhile, the bread had turned a golden brown color, highlighting the religious designs that Sarkis stamped into the dough with homemade plastic tools prior to baking it.
In several small loaves, he stamped the Greek letters for "Jesus Christ, Victorious Conqueror," and he added 12 rays on the outer edges of the bread to signify the 12 Apostles. In two larger loaves, he stamped the images of Jesus and Mary, turning the bread into icons that can be venerated and eaten by parishioners following Divine Liturgies.
The freshly baked bread was to be used during a Divine Liturgy at St. Josaphat Ukrainian Catholic Parish on the occasion of a visit by Ukrainian Greek Catholic Bishop Paul Chomnycky.
Sarkis is a Greece resident who attends St. Nicholas the Wonderworker Parish in Gates. He is studying to be a deacon in the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, which belongs to the Byzantine rite but is in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church.
The qurban bread is a Melkite tradition, Sarkis explained. It is one part pastry, due to a high sugar content, and one part floral experience, thanks to the rose water used on the outside and the combination of orange blossom water and ground cherry pits called mahlab that are baked into the bread. He said the bread is intended to be a positive reminder of the promise of Resurrection.
"Jesus is the bread of life, and this sweet, leavened bread represents the risen Messiah," he said.
Sarkis’ recipe is adapted from his Lebanese family’s personal recipe. He said he used to volunteer to bake dough brought to him by his fellow St. Nicholas the Wonderworker parishioners, but to simplify the baking, he decided to stick to his family’s recipe to make and bake bread for a variety of parish occasions.
For example, Sarkis’ bread is a fixture at funerals, and families often will request the bread for memorial liturgies following a person’s death.
One of the most popular times of the year for the bread is Easter, he said. He starts three weeks prior to Passover, called Pascha, making many dozens of loaves of the bread and freezing it to meet the demand. Sarkis donates proceeds from the sale of the bread to his parish as a fundraiser. In this way, he said he is helping to keep alive the qurban tradition.
"In the past, each family made their own and brought it to church, particularly on Easter," he said.
The bread is delicious, said Sister of the Cenacle Sadie Nesser. Her sister, Mary Nesser, who attends St. Nicholas, has shared the bread with her for many years.
"It is very tasty, and it fits the Scripture of, "Taste and see how sweet is the Lord," Sister Nesser said.