To celebrate Easter, I have been utilising my baking skills. In honour of Allison’s Ukrainian-Canadian heritage, I have baked paska, the special bread which Ukrainians bake for this event.
Paska (the word derives from the Hebrew word pesakh, meaning ‘passover’) is one of those breads that moves away from the basic four ingredients of bread (flour, water, yeast, salt) by including milk, eggs, sugar and butter. Such breads are common among many communities for a celebratory event; in this case, the celebration of Easter. Many cultures have special bread that is only made on special occasions, and for Ukrainian Catholics the celebration of Easter is a very special occasion. Hence the inclusion of eggs in the recipe – although they are beaten before being mixed into the dough, I have found out that the yellow from the yolk is symbolic of Jesus rising from the dead while the white symbolises the Holy Ghost.
I used the recipe from a book called Traditional Ukrainian Cookery by Savella Stechishin –one of the first Ukrainian-Canadian cookbooks which was first published in the Fifties and which had got through seventeen editions before Allison was given a signed copy in recognition of a school project in 1991. All of the recipes in this book have their names given in the Cyrillic as well as the Latin alphabet, and some are credited to women from places in Saskatchewan and Alberta; I imagine all of these ladies to be five-foot-two grannies who worked hard to put food on the table for their families out on the prairies.
It starts with sugar – used in many bread recipes as an accelerant for the yeast – being dissolved in warm water before dried yeast is sprinkled over it. To this is added lukewarm milk that has previously been scalded (almost but not quite brought to the boil) and flour, which is covered and left until bubbly. Beaten eggs, sugar, melted butter and salt are added to this, the resulting dough being kneaded – always my favourite part – until it’s “smooth and satiny” according to Mrs Stechishin’s instructions.
This is left until doubled in bulk, then knocked down prior to the decoration. For this, two-thirds of the dough is used for the loaf, with the other third being used for the decoration. This has to go on the dough before the final rising, so I wasn’t inclined to do anything too elaborate as it might weigh the dough down and thus prevent it from rising (although I’ve seen some photograph of paska that are very elaborately decorated!), besides which Mrs Stechishin states that “elaborate ornaments require experience”. I have experience of doing braids for the Christmas kalach, and of decorating the top of a meat pie with a Union Jack made from the leftover bits of pastry, so I rolled my decorative third out into strands and did a braided cross design.
This was set aside to rise again and, to my surprise, it rose very quickly; how seasonally appropriate! After being brushed with beaten egg, it went into the oven for 55 minutes.
The result was, I am happy to report, one of my better bread-making efforts – the braided-cross effect looked particularly good. Bread made to celebrate special events is always bread above the norm, and after letting it cool overnight we toasted it for breakfast this morning. And then we had some for lunch. And there’s some more for tomorrow too. Even though I halved the recipe, we’re not going to go short of paska any time soon!