Monday, March 26, 2012

A non-Antiques Roadshow treasure -- Paska for Easter

The Antiques Roadshow has brought new awareness of the monetary but also intrinsic value of heirlooms – or anything old. Most people have at least a few things they treasure, not because of their worth in dollars, but because they were an important part of the family at one time. 

          These items are hard to give up when you move to a smaller place. I anguished when I moved to my apartment nearly seven years ago. Could I really part with these treasures?  I let go of some of them but  brought with me those that take up no space on shelves or cupboards, only in our memories of  family traditions and rituals.  But those routines provided a rhythm to our lives. 

          One such rhythm  was changing bed sheets every other Friday.  Clean pajamas lay on our pillows when we went to bed every Friday.  Bathing, however,  was a weekly Saturday ritual.  The first child, usually the  youngest,  bathed in a shallow measure of water in the round tub hauled in for this weekly procedure. The oldest bathed in a tub-sized ocean full of murky soap curds. All my tender  years I longed  for the evening  I would crawl  out of the tub into clean pajamas between clean sheets. No such luck.

          Eating  certain foods at special times of the year was another important ritual in my childhood home. At Easter we ate Paska (Pashka), or Easter bread. My immigrant mother made it, her mother in the Ukraine made it before her, and I don’t know how many generations before her.  I thought this family tradition would die out with me, but it didn’t.  My  daughters still make this cherished family treasure with great joy and pride even though it  will never make it onto the Antiques Roadshow. 

          Paska baking is an annual ritual connected with the celebration of the risen Christ.  Melting Pot of Mennonite Cookery tells me it was borrowed by the Mennonites in the Ukraine from Russian Orthodox women, who baked gigantic mushroom-shaped breads at Easter, iced them colorfully, and brought them to the priest to be blessed as a gift.

          They were baked in large round tins so that as they rose,  each  formed a “dome,” reminding the people of cathedral  onion-shaped domes.   Paska was always made in huge batches. One researcher of Ukrainian Orthodox background writes that recipes sometimes used over sixty  and more eggs per batch, mostly yolks.  The measure of a woman’s generosity, ability and wealth was measured by the number of eggs used in her batch of Paska.  Sometimes the dough took all day to rise and ended up a foot high.

          Before   putting the tins  in the brick oven,  fired with wood and straw, the housewife closed her eyes and prayed out loud, “Bogna  pomotsch” (God help me), then crossed herself in Orthodox fashion as she closed the oven door.  Mennonite women adopted the bread but not the blessing, but I’m sure many of then prayed the big undertaking would be a success.  Ukrainian women placed their iced Paska in the front window for all to admire as they strolled by.  No cars  rushed by in those days.

          When served in the home with company present, the guest of honor was offered the iced top. Otherwise,  the oldest member was so honored.  Folk tradition said how the Paska turned out predicted the future. Good Paska, good times ahead.  Heavy, flat Paska, bad times.  I can recall Mother commenting on whether her Paska had  turned out well  and priding herself if it had.  It was quite an accomplishment to make a large batch of this rich egg, sugar and flour yeast dough achieve lightness of texture. 

          Why do I value this tradition?  What memories bring strength to my spirit?  As a child, in winter and spring,  we attended the Russian Baptist church in our small Slavic village. That we children didn’t understand Russian was never a concern.  We imbibed the flavor of worship.  In the crowded  lobby,  on Easter Sunday, as the people removed their outer garments, they jubilantly greeted each other with  “Vostoss Voskress” (Christ is risen) to hear  “Voistinno Voskress” (Christ is risen indeed).  In  front of the pulpit the women   had placed  the decorated mushroom-shaped  Paska and plates of dyed Easter eggs.  

          But times have changed.  No longer do I save coffee cans and other large tin cans for months before Easter.  Even in the last years when I was still baking Paska, I began making it in angel food tins or loaf pans, or simply made hot cross buns.  Less hassle. 

          Why did women for several centuries make this complicated product with high risk of failure?  To give  children a sense of continuity within families and a stronger recognition of the church calendar.  Easter was special.  Easter required special food.  One woman said she did it  “to build memories.”  That’s why I did it. It wasn’t Easter without it.Families need traditions to steady them.

          Here’s  recipe I’ve  had in my files for decades. It’s not for the intrepid baker or the faint of heart: 
¾ lb. butter
2    c. milk
10 to 12 eggs
4     c. sugar
14 c. flour
5 cakes yeast
Mix as you would for rolls or bread. Dissolve yeast in lukewarm water. Scald milk and add butter. Cool and add to yeast mixture. Separate eggs and beat yolks until light and fully and add sugar. Add to yeast mixture. Beat egg whites until stiff and fold in.  Fold in flour, vanilla, salt.  Optional: almonds, orange peel, dried citrus fruit or raisins. Place in a large bowl and let rise until double in bulk. Knead dough vigorously.
To prepare molds, line with double thickness of heavy brown paper, which has been greased. Allow paper to extend at least one-half depth of can over top of can. Sprinkle inside of cans with bread crumbs.  Fill each can about one-third full, no more [or you’ll be sorry]  Allow dough to rise until double in bulk.
Bake for about one hour in 400-degree oven. To test use long knitting pin or cake tester.  Allow to cool in can.  Turn out on something soft, like a dish towel.  Keeps well for about a week.
Decorate with butter frosting and colored sprinkles. [Week-old Paska tastes wonderful when toasted and spread with butter.]  

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