Baking Paska Bread for Easter

What a beautiful, productive, sunny, springy day-before-Easter-Sunday. Beautiful, sunny and springy because the mid-50s warmth was a nice break from Cleveland’s blistery winter hangover. Productive because it brought several firsts for me:

  • First time hanging laundry on the new apartment clothesline outside
  • First time baking Paska Bread
  • First time zesting a lemon
  • First time proofing yeast

With the laundry started and towels already flapping in the wind, I got busy baking Easter goodies. First, proofing yeast and dissolving sugar for my first venture into Paska bread baking. With the first few ingredients rising in a warm, dark place (which happens to be in the bedroom), I get a head start on tomorrow morning’s breakfast. Out comes the trusty old pastry cloth and pin, rolling out dough for mom’s legendary cinnamon roll recipe – which I can never quite master to her standards.

Then spread and sprinkle, roll it carefully, and cut. Perfect cinnamon spirals ready for the oven.

Now, what the hell is Paska bread again?

Apparently, a light, sweet Ukrainian egg bread traditionally eaten at Easter – that my boyfriend has been requesting for weeks now. And that I’ve been putting off because I know I can’t bake it like his Baba did.

Baking my family’s traditional treats is one thing. And don’t get me wrong – I love experimenting with different ingredients and new recipes. But when you have a very specific memory of your grandma’s special bread – that I’ve never even heard of – well, I don’t want to set you up for disappointment, but…

Fortunately, thanks to Google search and a comment calling this the best quality of any Paska recipe, we have it. A recipe for Paska bread I can handle – using ingredients on hand. I cut the recipe in half because I don’t need three loaves of bread.

I’ve been wanting to bake more bread, and I don’t know what about those measly little packets of living yeast freaked me out. But I have no excuses anymore. Proofing yeast, it turns out, just means dissolving it in water. And you don’t need a special zesting tools, just a small cheese grater, to scratch the zingy top layer from a lemon. This is easy.

Paska Bread Recipe

1 (.25 oz) package active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water (110 degrees – warm, not hot)
1/4 cup white sugar
1 1/2 cups warm milk
2 cups all-purpose flour

Dissolve the yeast in the warm water until it gets frothy. Meanwhile, dissolve the sugar in the warm milk. When the milk cools, add it to the yeast with the flour. Mix it up with a wooden spoon (remembering, from our AFB baking, that metal reacts with the yeast). Cover with plastic wrap or clean cloth, and let it rise in a dark, warm spot for a couple hours till it bubbles and doubles in size.

The whole idea of dough rising is like an exciting science experiment to me – but then again, I’m a big nerd. The yeast is feeding on the sugar and turning it to carbon dioxide and ethanol, so in essence, you’re fermenting alcohol before you bake. Which is exactly why I drink while I bake.

Use your 2 hours wisely. Then add:

3 eggs, beaten
1/4 cup white sugar
1/2 cup butter, softened
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon lemon zest

Mix well, then add 6 cups of flour, one cup at a time. Personally, I got in a little more than 5 before I started struggling, so I moved to my floured pastry sheet early and worked in more flour as I kneaded (for about 10 minutes).

Place the dough ball in a greased bowl and turn to coat. Cover it back up, and put it back to bed to rise for another couple hours.

Now, this is my favorite part – and it tells you what a violent soul I am. Punching down the dough. If the kneading wasn’t enough release for you, this nice calm pounding will get the aggression out. Back to rest, rising for another half hour.

Divide the dough in half, shape each into a rounded loaf and place on greased baking stones. Let rise another hour on the pan, rising till doubled. Beat an egg with a tablespoon of water to brush over the loaves before popping in a 350-degree oven.

The loaves will be gorgeous golden brown after, well, 20 minutes in my oven but 45-50 according to the recipe. Give or take.

By midnight, my day ended with 16 successfully dyed eggs, 12 plump cinnamon rolls ready to go for the morning, and 2 golden loaves of experimental Easter bread. Bring it on, Easter Bunny.

Easter Traditions, Old & New

I thought the request would be a long shot, but I had been craving Grandma’s grilled chicken since grilling season ended last year. More recently, I’d been hoping mom might consider recreating the classic for our Easter dinner. Thanks to my oldest sister craving the same thing and even offering to provide the meat from her farm, our Easter menu was set.
There was plenty to look forward to during the four-hour drive from Cleveland back to Goshen, but that chicken was top-of-mind. My grandma was a legend in the kitchen, a role my mom began duplicating as soon as, I suppose, she had her first kitchen to be legendary in. Today, there are several versions of Mary Alice’s recipe for “BBQ” chicken floating around the family, but they’re not even worth posting here because (well, I need to protect the family secret, but also) the closest remaining recipe lives only in my mom’s head and relies her inherited ability to dump some of this and pour some of that to the keenest proportions.
The real secret of this recipe, though, is not what goes in but how it goes on. You can’t baste the chicken too often with this sauce while it’s on the grill – which helped quell the arguments over which granddaughter would help Grandma, because we could baste all we wanted without endangering the meal.
If there was a single meal to encapsulate my childhood, it would be Grandma’s grilled chicken. With green beans on the side, of course, and homemade bread – both of which joined our Easter spread this year.
Then there are the new traditions, and the experiments that may or may not become them. Like these Peep cupcakes I saw in Sweet Melissa’s in Rocky River and recreated myself. It’s not Easter – or any holiday, these days – without Peeps, and these were too adorable not to try. With green-dyed coconut and mini Cadbury eggs (and princess cupcake liners we found discounted to $.49/50), these became part of our centerpiece and doubled as dessert.
We also brought Grandma’s memory to the table via a purple hyacinth we picked from her gravesite after church. Next to it: an empty plastic Easter egg, which for our family will always represent, like the empty tomb, a promise of new life…


Easter Eggs, Chops & Smashers

Easter is the one time of the year when I buy white eggs from the store. Being raised on brown eggs fresh from the coop, I can taste the difference. And I don’t like it. But you just can’t dye brown eggs, so I give in.

Easter just isn’t Easter until you dye eggs. And fortunately, my mom stayed with me this weekend so we got to be creative together. That takes care of the centerpiece.

Now the meal: I bought pork chops last week. Now, generally, this isn’t a very odd statement to make. But coming from me, it is. I don’t really eat pork. Bacon and pepperoni, maybe every once in a while. Ham and sausage, never. But I was getting tired of chicken for every meal so I decided to be brave.

Then began the search for a recipe that didn’t require obscure ingredients, timely marinating processes or foreign techniques. I came across this recipe for Parmesan-Crusted Pork Chops. Ah, Giada. Where would I be without you?

Basically, you coat each chop in grated Parmesan, beaten egg and Italian breadcrumbs, then fry it in the skillet. At first when I read the recipe, I thought: There’s no way that stuff will stick in that order. I almost didn’t follow directions because I expected a failure. But you should always trust Giada.

It makes such a deliciously crispy crust. Pretty good, even for pork chops. My mom and I also tried it on chicken, and that was just as awesome. If you can, use the Kraft Parmesan cheese that comes in a big chunk with its own grater. Those shreds of cheese were thicker than what you buy already-grated, so it made a thicker, cheesier crust.

For sides, we made green beans and Potato Smashers, another recipe from Kraft’s Food & Family magazine,.

Here’s my annotated version of the recipe:
Stab four new red potatoes with a fork several times, making holes for steam to escape. Place them in 1/2 cup of water in a microwavable bowl. Microwave uncovered for 8-10 minutes or until soft. Let stand 5 minutes. Drain potatoes and place on work surface (I use my cutting board). Press each one with the bottom of a small glass, flattening to 1/2-inch thick.

Meanwhile, heat enough Italian dressing to cover the bottom of a skillet. Add potatoes. Cook 4 minutes. Flip them over and sprinkle with shredded sharp cheddar cheese. Cook until cheese is melted. Serve with sour cream and any other toppings you want — green onions, olives, etc.

Enjoy. And Happy Easter!