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Ukrainian Easter Holiday dinner brings food steeped in rich tradition to the table

For Ukrainian Catholics like Martha Stasiuk, nothing's as delicious as Easter morning.

It's partly the food, especially the carefully made traditional breads, sausage, ham, eggs and cheeses that families pack into baskets for a Holy Saturday blessing ceremony.

The hunger helps, too. Stasiuk and others like her abstain from meat and dairy products for a day or two before Easter. Then on Easter Sunday, they eat little or nothing before morning services that may last two or three hours at St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church in Kenmore, celebrating the resurrection of Christ.

"We appreciate the meat more, quite a bit more, because we have a big fast day the Friday before, and Saturday," said Stasiuk, who was born in Ukraine and arrived in Buffalo in 1959. Once church ends, she said, "Then you go home and have your feast."

Food plays a central role in the Ukrainian Catholic Easter celebration, with families gathering around groaning tables after a season of self-deprivation. "Everybody can relate to food," said Francesca Kasa, who cooks dishes learned from her grandmother, Olga Jakubowsky.

"Even the people who aren't what you would consider religious, or spiritual, they'll still come over and eat the Easter ham because that's what you do," Kasa said. "Everybody eats Easter eggs, even though people might not remember what the symbolism is of the eggs."

Many St. John's parishioners will get their traditional Easter breads fashioned by fellow parishioners, who kneaded and baked for days before the bazaar at the church on Palm Saturday.

The Ukrainian women were making breads called babka and paska, among other delicacies. Both types could show up in families' baskets on Holy Saturday.

Babka is a sweet, eggy bread, like brioche or panettone. It's usually a tall, cylindrical loaf, often baked in coffee cans. Since it's a reminder of spring, it is sometimes adorned with greenery, Martha Stasiuk said. "If you have anything that's green, anything growing outside, like a vine of some kind, you can snip it and use it to decorate the babka."

Paska is usually broader and not quite as sweet, sometimes decorated with figures made from dough, such as crosses, garlands and even "Happy Easter," in Ukrainian or English.

There's a type of paska, made from farmers cheese, that's also found in Ukrainian Easter baskets. Along with garlicky sausage, red-dyed eggs, ham and more, the basket's contents are the starting point for the festive Easter meal at home, Kasa said.

"All the things in our baskets represent something," said Kasa. "The meats represent sacrifice. The eggs represent life. Salt and bread are hope for prosperity. The bread is representative of Jesus, and the butter lamb of Christ."

"Horseradish represents bitterness," she added. "With everything sweet, there's some bitterness in life."

Like many Ukrainian cooks, Kasa will start her Easter cooking days beforehand. Kasa will make her favorite mushroom-stuffed eggs, and her grandmother's mocha nut torte.

Just don't expect hopping bunnies or chocolate to show up. You couldn't get chocolate in Ukraine during World War II, or Stalin's regime, so it's not in Easter baskets, Stasiuk said.

"Chocolate?" she said. "That wasn't part of it."

At the holiday meal, Ukrainians will celebrate the feast day with good wishes, and hard-boiled eggs, for all. "The head of household, like the father, has this little plate with all these eggs on it," said Stasiuk. "It goes around the table, everyone grabs a piece of egg, and you wish everyone a happy Easter."

>Beet Horseradish Relish

6 cups water

3 tablespoons cider vinegar

2 teaspoons salt

6 medium-sized beets, washed

3 to 4 tablespoons prepared horseradish (not sauce), more if desired

1 to 2 tablespoons sugar

Add 1 tablespoon vinegar and 1 teaspoon salt to water; bring to boil.

Add beets and cook for 35 to 45 minutes, or until tender. Drain and cool.

Don disposable gloves if possible, and peel skin off beets. Grate finely on box grater.

Mix grated beets with remaining vinegar and salt, plus horseradish and sugar. Taste and add more if desired.

Store in a covered jar and refrigerate; best if made at least a day ahead.

Note: Disposable gloves help avoid stained hands. Three cans of small whole beets may be substituted for fresh beets. (Recipe from Francesca Kasa.)


>Ukrainian Easter Babka

1/2 cup lukewarm water

2 packages yeast

2 cups scalded milk

1/2 pound butter

1 tablespoon salt

Flour to make soft dough, about 7 cups or more

1 cup sugar

5 whole eggs

10 egg yolks

1 orange, juice and rind

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup golden seedless raisins (optional)

Dissolve sugar in lukewarm water; sprinkle yeast over it; let stand 10 minutes.

Beat the eggs and the egg yolks for 10 minutes, adding the sugar a little at a time. Add the salt, orange juice, milk, rind and the yeast mixture to the beaten eggs. Mix well and gradually mix in the flour, adding the melted butter a little at a time, until enough flour is added to make a soft dough.

Knead for 20 minutes or until dough no longer clings to hands. Let rise in a warm place until double in bulk. Knead down and let rise again as before.

Grease tall tins well and coat with bread crumbs. (Use coffee cans.)

Form dough into a ball small enough to fill one-third of container. Let rise in a warm place until the dough barely reaches the top. Put in a preheated 350-degree oven and bake for 30 minutes.

Babka should be handled very carefully when being taken out of the tins, and should be laid on a soft, covered cushion to cool. (Recipe from St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church.)


>Ukrainian Cheese Paska

1 pound farmers cheese or dry cottage cheese

4 egg yolks

1 whole egg

1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon melted butter

Press cheese through a sieve. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Beat egg yolks and whole egg together until very light and creamy. Blend the egg mixture into cheese, and add butter and sugar. Mix well.

Line a round, 2-quart casserole dish with foil so that foil extends over lip of dish, and butter foil well. Add egg mixture.

Bake at 325 degrees for 45 minutes, or until toothpick inserted comes out clean. Cool thoroughly before lifting by foil out of dish and unmolding.

The tops of a cheese paska are traditionally decorated with cloves or raisins in the shape of a cross. Excellent with paska bread.

Variation: For a sweeter, more dessert-like cheese paska, use 3 tablespoons sugar, adding 1 teaspoon vanilla, and zest of one lemon. (Recipe from Francesca Kasa.)


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