The week before Easter, called Holy Week by Christians of all kinds, is filled with traditions. Each culture has customs and rituals that correspond to the the severity of the week followed by the happy celebration on Easter. The very nature of the holiday, the idea of resurrection, is so perfect for this time of year when spring has already started and the first leaves and blossoms appear.
It’s been a busy week for me so far. My grandmother recently gave me her mother’s recipe for paska, a traditional sweet challah-like bread eaten at Easter by Eastern-Europeans. Since I’m going to be bringing it to my family on Easter, I naturally needed to experiment with the recipe. I say “recipe” but really it was a a list of proportions with a few directions on the back of a 50 year old piece of paper. (Note: the best recipes usually come in this form.) Indeed. her recipe produces a slightly denser, richer version than I have had before and is perfectly sweetened. The recipe also calls for 8 cups of flour. Having made this recipe twice this week, my fridge is filled with four huge loaves of paska. I’ve been trying to eat it all, but there is only so much one can eat!
My Aunt Eleanor was a renowned baker in my family. Her impeccably made cookies and pastries were always enjoyed at every major holiday. She was most famous for her nut and poppy seed rolls– an Eastern European specialty that isa sweet yeasted dough rolled around nut or poppy seed filling. Aunt Eleanor’s always looked and tasted perfect and some years she would make these rolls by the dozen to give away to family and friends. She passed away exactly fifteen years ago this month and I realized that my younger cousins and family have been without her delicious baking their entire lives. Aunt El took a lot of pride in her baking and I think that making these once again for Easter is suitable tribute to her.
I mentioned that she would make them by the dozen, right? The proportions of her handwritten recipe cards confirm this. Like the paska, I needed to test out the recipe before I brought it to my family. Let me tell you, it is very, VERY dangerous having six delicious loaves of nut roll in the fridge, right next to the paska.
If my fridge couldn’t get any more carb-laden, my grandmother also gave me the recipe for my Aunt Dot’s cinnamon rugelach- cookies rolled in cinnamon sugar and baked– which I naturally had to make. Rugelach are synonymous with Jewish baking and very traditional rugelach dough uses butter and sour cream. In the past century or so, it has become more common in America to use cream cheese in the dough in place of the sour cream. This recipe seems pretty traditional and uses a mixture of sour cream and cream cheese. The little typewritten slip of paper gives a bare-bones recipe with a hand-written note on the top: “from Thelma.”
One of my favorite traditions at Easter is making pysanky, Ukrainian Easter eggs. Pysanky are beautifully decorated eggs that carry massive amounts of symbolism. Aside from the blatant symbolism of the egg itself, what is written on the egg and the colors are equally important. Some patterns are strictly and intensely geometric while some are rather simple and fast to make. They’re traditionally placed in the Easter basket which is blessed by a priest before Easter brunch. You needed to have at least one red egg in the basket– the color distracts bad spirits from ruining the other foods in the basket and instead goes right into the inedible pysanka.
The method used to make them is called a wax-resist method. You draw on the egg with melted beeswax whatever you want to remain white and then dip the egg in some serious dye. Once the egg is colored, you remove it and dry it. Then you write on it again with beeswax whatever you want to be the color you just dyed it. The beeswax magically prevents the dye from seeping in, so whatever color you write on keeps its color. If your design is detailed, by the end of the process you’re sometimes left with an egg nearly covered in wax. You heat up the egg with a candle (or, more modernly, in the oven) and wipe away the melted wax. There we are! Your pattern emerges. They’re not difficult to make, you just require the patience to create them and the faith that they will come out beautifully once the veil of wax is removed, which is the crux of the holiday anyway.
Making pysanky is usually a group activity– everyone sits around the table and chats or sings while making these beautiful eggs. So, this year, my friend Anna came over and we set to task to make them. I should preface this with that neither of us are experts at making them… at all. We had a great dinner of borscht with sour cream and dill, broiled kovbasa, paska bread (trying to use it up!), garlicky dill pickles, Gouda, Brie, luscious chocolate babka, and wine before we went about making them. We had a marvelous time catching up and chit-chatting. Our efforts turned out quite respectable, but experts we are not.