Saturday, April 14, 2012

Paska and Babka Forever



Quick! What's tall, yellow, inside, and has 60 to 120 eggs (mostly yolks)?  No, not one of Big Bird's relatives, but an old-fashioned Ukrainian babka — a traditional Easter bread. Perhaps such an irreverent opening may offend some — it is only meant in jest — because to Ukrainians, all breads, especially the Easter paska and babka, are considered  not only special, but holy and reverent. 

Gunn's Bakery, Selkirk Avenue, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
I still remember my mother baking pasky (plural of paska) when I was quite small. Whether it was Good Friday or Holy Saturday I can no longer remember (I am getting older!), but І do I know that it was a day of fasting until  we visited church — so all I could do is smell the sweet, warm, fresh paska, then smell the kovbasa being prepared. Together the scents reminded the famished me of Easter morning breakfast. Come to think of it, it was probably Holy Saturday, because kovbasa would not have even been out (with no meat or dairy products eaten on that day) on Good Friday.


Now I can confess to a crime committed every time Mama left the paska out to cool - as if no one noticed, the little holes all over the outside of the  golden round breads, including the best one to be taken in the Easter basket for  blessing in church, were my fault. How could a kid resist those delicious golden raisins in the paska, the ones soft on the inside and crispy on the side exposed to  the heat of the baking pan? Now that I'm way over 21,I still give in to the urge to do this. But now I bake babky (plural of babka) both with and without raisins, because my sons like raisins on their own, but not in anything else. While a, babka and a paska are two different Easter breads, often the words are used interchangeably. The paska is a rich round bread, with elaborate symbolic dough ornaments baked into its top. The name is definitely Christian in origin, based on the Hebrew word for Passover (pronounced peisakh). In the old days, pasky were not the round baking-pan-size breads that now conveniently fit into our delicate Easter baskets. They were carried — or taken by wagon — to church wrapped in large khustyny (shawls), and could be the size of wagon wheels. In her book "Mynule Plyve у Pryideshnie" [The Past is Flowing into the Future”, Dokia Humenna writes that if the paska grew so big that it could not be removed from the "pich" (clay oven), the oven was taken apart; this indicates both the size of a paska,  and its ritual importance. The baked-in dough symbols on the top of the paska include the cross, flowers, shyshky (pine cones), birds, rams horns and other curlicues, wheat stalks, and other motifs - depending upon regional and personal preferences. lt takes great skill to mold the ornaments out of the rich dough, (usually a stiffer dough is used for the top), and to have them remain recognizable — let alone presentable in church — after they are baked. My efforts so far have been barely passable. In the bible of Ukrainian cook books, Savella Stechishin's Traditional Ukrainian Cookery, there is one hint on the ornaments — they are to be placed on top when it is about half risen.

I prefer the taste of a babka. This is a richer, almost cake-bread, much taller, than a paska, and with a round top, with no ornamentation. Some cooks glaze the babka with a light sugar icing, but I prefer the.shiny афі)ег top: resulting from a beaten egg-milk  wash. The name baba, or babka, means grandmother, or old women, and stems from the matrilineal prehistoric Trypillian culture. The respect for the holiness of bread and its accompaniment of Ukrainians during every aspect of life also stems from this first agricultural society on our territory. There is an incongruity, however, І between the name and the shape of this Easter bread. While the name is feminine, the shape is phallic, therefore masculine (according to Dr. Robert Klymasz of the Canadian Center for Folk Culture Studies of the Canadian Museum of Civilization). Phallic worship was and still is common in many cultures, and is based on the reverence for fertility in life. In our culture, most fertility symbolism stresses the feminine, and the baba symbolized the first ancestor/grain, the birth-giver. The baking of the paska/babka was not a simple matter of baking bread (but even the latter was not simple, and always reverent). Ms. Humenna writes that it was baked with centuries-old prescribed rituals. ''Baking paska was the most important event of the year for the hospodynia (woman of the house)." Even the ashes remaining from the oven after baking the paska were removed and scattered over the garden when the first seedlings were planted. The finest wheat flour was used for the Easter bread, along with butter, sugar, and many, very many eggs.

In her wonderful, touching sold-out book "Oy, Vershe, Miy Vershe" about the Lemko Region of Ukraine, Iwanna Sawycky writes about Easter preparations. The story "Yak Zabiliyut' Sady" [When the Orchards Turn White] tells about baking pasky after the pysanky are finished. "This was a separate ritual, with separate reverent preparation -and a measure of generosity, ability and wealth of every woman in the village was the amount of eggs in the dough of the Easter bread. This was an original contest which excited not only close neighbors, but the whole village. On Holy Thursday, egg shells were strung on bushes and tree branches along the village road. Thus, the 'orchards bloomed,' "the roadside bushes blooming not with cherry blossoms or white flowers,but with shells of chicken eggs, which were to testify about the wealth and generosity of the various family homesteads."  With over 60, and up to 150 eggs per batch (mostly yolks), the village must have really bloomed.  Along with the other ingredients, the babka includes grated lemon zest, vanilla, sometimes ginger and/or saffron. The shafran (saffron) grew wild - it was the yellow pollen-covered stigma of the Crocus sativus. Today, I think the few threads of saffron in a plastic pouch in the gourmet section of the food store are even more expensive per gram than the dried European boletus mushroom. 

The yeast batter is begun by the milk sponge method, and results in a very soft dough. My mother never used a recipe, and her paska always come out just fine, although every time, she worried about it. I do remember that you know when the dough has been kneaded enough, because it no longer clings to the hand.  Easier said than done, because to get to that stage, you knead until your shoulder and elbow joints separate! One year did the sacrilegious, and tried to knead the babka in my Cuisinart food processor. I'm not superstitious, but way in the back mind I know that I was punished for this — the batter was so soft that it dislodged the blade, which got stuck on the rod. That was it - I had to take the food processor, with the dough and blade still intact — to the repair shop. Using the electric mixer to get the batter smooth at the beginning is as mechanical as I am willing to get. You don't mess with ritual babka baking!

There was not just one type of babka/paska. Long ago, there were three, each baked symbolically for a specific purpose: the yellow babka for the sun, the white babka for the departed (the dead), and the black babka for the family, for people. Another version
has the yellow babka for the sky and sun, the white for the air so that it may not bring evil and death, and the black babka, out of rye flower, flavored with various spices and roots, for the fertile earth. Each was baked on a different day, with special preparation of the makitra or nochva (kneading bowl) for the babka, and the dizha (kneading trough) for the paska.  When the dough was rising, all other adults had to leave the house, and the children were sternly instructed to remain silent, and not to disturb the babka. If the paska did not rise well, baked unevenly, "fell in the middle, or had a hole inside, this foretold family disaster, either a death or illness or great misfortune during the coming year. It was not permitted to taste the Easter bread until it was blessed Easter morning. There is even a proverb about anticipating something as impatiently as waiting to taste the blessed paska. The wood for the baking was gathered during Lent, and the kindling was from the blessed pussy willow branches received on Palm Sunday.  As with pysanka writing, special prayers were said before a woman began baking Easter bread.

Stefan Kylymnyk paraphrases a very old grandmother's prayer as the "yellow" paska was placed on the oven:  "Holy paska, may you be as great and beautiful as the sun, because it is for the sun that we bake you. May all (family members mentioned individually) who are alive be healthy.  May our children grow as quickly and finely as you are.  Shine for us, paska, as the holy sun shines; may our bread in the field be as rich and great as you are..."  The "white" paska heard: "May the righteous souls be as pure and holy as pure, holy, and great is this paska...  May vou [the souls] be as happy and comfortable as the paska in the oven.  We are baking this paska for you, our ancestors, we are honoring you, and in turn, mav vou help us... May your time in ray (paradise) be as beautiful as these pasky in the oven..." In placing the "black" paska in the oven, the hospodynia expressed honor and respect for mother earth, and wished people and all farm animals health and well-being. She prayed for a bountiful harvest, for no storms or lightning, no hail.

Other prayers were said as the paska/babka was removed from the oven and left to cool. This bread cannot be placed on a rack or other hard surface for cooling, but must be gently laid on a bed of pillows or soft towels, and periodically turned, so that thetender bread cools evenly without settling. I have been following the babka recipe in Savella Stechishin's cook book for many years, with fine results (except for the Cuisinart disaster). Then, around four years ago, my babky would not rise the way they should.  They tasted just as wonderful as always, but were very short. This bothered me, because I followed the recipe exactly. The same thing happened the following year. Then, Easter night as I was falling asleep, the light bulb in my head lit up - the yeast! Unwittingly, I had used whatever yeast was available, and this was around the time that the new fast-rising yeast came on the market. The babka had no energy to rise for the third time the way she always did! The next year 1 made sure I used regular, not fast-rising, yeast, and everything was back to normal. Maybe the solution to my problem would have come sooner if I had known and said some of the ritual prayers.

Certainly we no longer approach Easter bread baking with the same ritual reverence our ancestors did. But with memories of Mama baking according to memory, adding enough flour until the dough is "just right" (whatever that means), and kneading until the dough "shines right," I do approach this baking with my own special reverence.  And even with my haphazard housekeeping, no matter what the oven looks like during the rest of the year, it must be shiny clean for the babka. In Winnipeg, with the large number of Ukrainians, paska and babka are available in the supermarkets before Easter, and are advertised as such. The bakeries all sell paska and babka. Gunn's Bakery, a second-generation North-End Jewish bakery catering to the Ukrainian, Polish and Jewish clientele, has won top awards with its paska and Ukrainian wedding bread entries at the baking conventions. It also sells a great kolach for Christmas.

Ritual bread baking is still alive, at least in western Canada. Canada's National Ukrainian Festival in Dauphin, Manitoba, holds annual ritual baking contests, with amazing entries. Oseredok - the Ukrainian Cultural and Educational Center in Winnipeg held an exhibit in its art gallery (not the museum), titled "Pratsia Zhinky... A Woman's Work: An Introduction to the Art of Ukrainian Ritual Breads," December 6, 1987, to January 31, 1988.   Approximately 200 different ritual breads were exhibited, with submissions from all over Manitoba and other provinces. The catalogue to the exhibit, written by Olya Marko, the art gallery curator, received an award for its artwork.

With the coming Velykden, may our babky and pasky rise tall, may they taste the way they should, and may our children and their children for generations to come approach Easter morning with reverence for the traditions handed down over so many centuries.
Khrystos Voskres!

(originally published in The Ukrainian Weekly, 1989, issue 18).

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