One year, when I was new to The World, I returned to my shared apartment after Easter with a paska. It was much like one of the two pictured here though I hadn’t completed the decoration when my roommates arrived home and saw the proud and erect bread product sitting on our kitchen table, the shaft marked with ridges (for extra pleasure) and the rounded, bulbous cap apparently spilling over with a viscous white liquid.
My roommates rolled on the floor laughing.
I raised one eyebrow, announced that Easter was a fertility festival and told them to get over it.
I was, of course, ad libbing.
I had not til that moment – despite adolescence – made the connection between the distinctive shape of our beloved Easter bread and any particular part of the human anatomy. Having seen paska every year since early childhood and having glanced away during those brief moments in sex ed class when visual aids were used, I was for many years far more familiar with the upright bread than with the appendage of virility it apparently represented.
If I had ever heard or thought about the symbolism of paska, it was as a symbol of Christ’s resurrection not of sex and fertility, though I could not have explained how a bread represented an empty tomb. Perhaps something about yeast, how it appears dead and then comes to life.
Honestly, I think it works better as a fertility symbol. It’s not just the penile shape, it’s also chock full of eggs, like an equal opportunity talisman for procreation. It just needs some coloured eggs and a couple of copulating bunny rabbits to complete the picture.
Not that Mennonites have a long history of bawdy symbolism. It’s hard, in fact, to imagine our fire brand Anabaptist fore bearers who cast aside anything even faintly perfumed with superstition eagerly breathing in the scent of baking paska and reveling in its majestic height. Unless they, too, were too clued out to recognize its probable origin in a pagan fertility rite.
Lucky for us, things had loosened up a bit by the time my Mennonite ancestors were eyeing their Ukrainian neighbours’ bread products. No doubt envious of both the taste and the pomp surrounding the Ukrainian Easter, they took it for their own and adapted it slightly. Paska never became as liturgically significant for Mennonites as it did for their Orthodox compatriots who not only brought their Easter breads to Church but also had them blessed by the priest and buried crumbs to guarantee a fruitful harvest. As far as I can tell, Mennonites never buried their paska.
These days, many Mennonites have abandoned the traditional shape and now bake it in rounds or loaves. I assume that they, like the storied Victorians who were embarrassed at the sight of table legs, have grown uncomfortable with an Easter celebration of the phallus. Either that or they can’t remember where they left their grandmother’s old coffee tins.
I, however, insist on the traditional shape and buy tomato juice in cans as a Lenten exercise in preparation. I do this, not in the hopes that a perfect paska will bring me luck or fertility, but in honour of my ancestors’ neighbours’ ancestors’ pagan beliefs and practice.
And to show all my former roommates. Laugh all you like.
The Paska Sour
- 1.5 oz pisco
- 1 oz blood orange juice
- 1 egg white
- .5 oz lime juice
- dash or two of rhubarb bitters
Shake the egg white on its own for 30-50 shakes until very frothy. Add a few ice cubes and the other ingredients and shake until cold. Pour into a cocktail class and garnish with blood orange wedge and/or cocktail cherries.
Drink with paska.
Proof the yeast: sprinkle 1 1/2 tblsp yeast in 3/4 cup warm water with a pinch of sugar. Let rise until fully dissolved and frothy.
Meanwhile, beat together 9 eggs and 3/4 cup sugar.
In very large bowl, combine 4 cups of all-purpose or white bread flour with 2 scant cups of skim milk, 3/4 tsp salt and 3/4 cup vegetable oil. Add risen yeast and egg mixture and beat until smooth. Let sit for 15 minutes or so until fluffy.
Once fluffy, add 3/4 cup sugar, 1 1/8 cup very soft butter, enough flour to make a soft bread dough, about 7 cups. Start by mixing in the flour by spoon and then knead in the rest. It should be smooth and not sticky but still softer than most bread dough. Let rise until double (an hour or so in the sun).
Pull out your ancestral paska tins and/or all the tin cans you have saved over the last few months. Grease and line the tins with parchment paper. Form the dough into balls about the diameter of the cans and big enough to fill the tin 1/3 to 1/2 of the way up. Let rise until almost level with the top.
Bake at 350. Baking times vary by the size of the tin; they generally take between 20-50 minutes.
When the paskas emerge from the oven, they are very soft and need to stiffen up before they can stand upright. We take two pillows from the bed and cover them with tea towels. Slide the paska out of its form and roll it gently back and forth on the pillow until it cools down enough that it will not flatten from being pressed on one side. Wait until it is completely cooled before erecting it.
Ice with a simple frosting of icing sugar, butter, almond extract and hot water. It should be just thin enough to drip a little. Decorate with jelly beans and cake sprinkles just because.
Serve with kaise-paska: Strain out the liquid from two tubs of cottage cheese. Discard the liquid. Hard boil 5 eggs, peel and separate the whites from the yolks. Eat the whites or serve them to your children. Crumble up the yolks and dump into a food processor with 1/2 cup of soft unsalted butter, 3/4 tsp vanilla and 1 cup sugar. Whir until well blended. Add cottage cheese and whir just until blended; it should retain some of the curd texture. Taste. Some people add lemon juice as well.