It isn’t Easter for me unless there’s a round loaf of bread with a candle stuck in it.
That bread is “paska”, a Ukrainian Easter tradition. I’ve never made it myself — thank heavens for bakeries and church bazaars — and the two recipes I have for it are long and elaborate. One is a newspaper article clipped by my mother and the other is in a book called Traditional Ukrainian Cookery by Savella Stechishen, born in Ukraine, educated in Saskatchewan, Canada, and a resident of Manitoba when the book was published in 1982.
“Paska is a round shaped Easter bread, much richer than ordinary bread,” she writes. “The top is elaborately decorated with fancy dough ornaments, having a cross as the central motif.” In addition to usual bread ingredients of flour, water, yeast, salt, both recipes include milk, eggs, sugar, and either one-half or two-thirds cup melted butter. It is similar in ingredients, although not in shape, to the braided challah loaf central to Jewish meals and celebrations, although challah is made with oil instead of butter. My mother’s friend Vera Panagapka used to bake paska and give one to our family when I was a child. Hers, like the loaf I found this year at a Ukrainian church bazaar, had raisins in it, although neither of my recipes adds any dried fruit.
Better known as a Ukrainian Easter tradition are pysanky, the ornately decorated eggs. I never made them and my Ukrainian mother was not enamoured of them: it is a time-consuming and finicky craft, where you apply fine designs in wax, dip the egg in dye, and repeat the procedure for every colour you want to use, eventually then melting away all the wax to leave behind the layered artistry. Because of all the work involved, pysanky are emptied of their egg content; otherwise, they’d either rot, on display, or you have to crack the eggshell and destroy your art to use the egg inside. I remember being stunned as a little girl when one baba (older lady) showed me some of these fancy eggs and explained that all the liquid egg inside had been “blown out” through two tiny holes.
Easter traditions and foods vary widely, depending on your culture. Greeks roast lamb; The English break the Lenten fast with simnel cake and hot-cross buns, the latter available widely in Canada; and the Danes brew a special beer, Påskeøl, available only around Easter.
I asked some women from my neighbourhood what was traditional Easter food, for them. “Ham,” two said, immediately. “Lamb,” said one. “Turkey!” said another. Turkey? the rest of the group, asked, with huh, what? expressions on their faces. Most agreed they liked to serve spring-like vegetables, even if those vegetables (such as asparagus) were not yet in season in Ontario but shipped here from South America.
For me, Easter dinner can be almost anything although my mother did tend to serve ham, potatoes, vegetables, and a lemon pie or her egg-heavy Candy Confetti Torte. But Easter brunch means hard-boiled eggs, kielbasa sausage, horseradish, and a slice of paska — or maybe a hot-cross bun, just to mix things up.
Main photo: Kelley Teahen