Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Traditional Easter Basket and My Variation On the Theme

When most people think of a traditional Easter basket, they think of stuff like marshmallow Peeps, hollow milk chocolate bunnies, and jelly beans.  However, in the Eastern European - particularly Slav - traditions, a traditional Easter basket is something much different.  The day I am writing this is only a couple of days before Palm Sunday, so a good Easter theme is important, and what a better culinary theme than a traditional Easter basket!

The Slavs (including my Polish in-laws as well as my own Russian forebears from a thousand or more years back) have always been a devoutly religious people, and as such it reflects in their food traditions, in particular the holiest days of Christmas and Easter.  Now, for many others, leg of lamb is the traditional Easter dinner, but in Slav culture, pork is the meat of choice and is featured quite liberally in the basket.  The pork products aside however, Slavs basically have the same idea for their baskets as the Jewish Passover Seder, upon which the traditional basket is based.  What I want to do here is talk about the symbolism of the various food items in the basket, and then I am going to tweek it around a little in order to give you a basket idea that is unique to my peculiar tastes.  So, we are going to be referencing a Byzantine Ruthenian Catholic cookbook entitled Culinary Chronicle (Beaver, PA, Greek Catholic Union of the USA, 1992), which has on pages 238-239 a breakdown and description of the basket items.  Therefore, let's get started.

Paska - This is a sweet, rich yeast coffee cake that symbolizes Christ as the Bread of Life.  It often has etched on its top a Slav (three-barred) cross as well as Cyrillic letters abbreviating the great Easter proclamation "Hristos Voskrese!" (Christ is Risen).  The Polish equivalent is a babka, while the Serbs, Croats, and other south Slavs use a potica, a type of rolled yeasty pastry filled with poppyseeds, apples, or berries.

Hrudka - the hrudka is a special homemade white cheese, the consistency of a mozzarella, that is custardy but sweet in taste.  It is indicative of the moderation Christians should have in all things.

Sunka -  This is the Slav ham that represents the great joy and abundance of Easter.   Often it is pre-cooked before it is blessed with the rest of the basket by the priest, in order to aid in the full celebration of the Holy Paska.

Maslo - This is a very important tradition to Barb, as she fondly remembers these from Easters as a little kid growing up at her Busha, or grandmother's house.  What it basically consists of is a little lamb molded out of fresh creamery butter, with a tiny cross flag on a toothpick and peppercorns for eyes.  Its purpose is to remind us of the goodness of Christ we should reflect in all things.

Kolbasi - This is also spelled kielbasa, and is a spicy, garlicky sausage symbolic of God's favor and generosity.

Slanina - This is of course bacon, and there is nothing better than European-style bacon!  It is symbolic of the overabundance of God's mercy extended to us.

Pysanki - These are the traditional Easter eggs, which in Slav tradition are beautifully decorated and are often preserved because they are almost too beautiful to eat.  The egg has always, in Eastern Churches, been a symbol of the tomb of Jesus, and a traditional practice is to crack the eggs by bumping them together with another person to symbolize Christ's victory over the tomb.  The person whose egg cracks first is said to be especially blessed of God that day.

Sol' - This is simply salt, and is a reminder of the Christian's duty to others

Khrin - This is a condiment made of grated horseradish mixed with beets, and is an obvious link to the Passover Seder of the Jews, as it is similar to the Maror, or bitter herbs, on the Seder meal table and has similar ingredients.  The bitter taste is to remind us of the bitterness of the sin Christ died for, and the red color His shed blood for our sins.  

The items above are assembled into a wicker basket, along with a candle, and the basket is then taken usually on Easter Sunday to the church, where the parish priest blesses the baskets.  Most of the content then becomes the Easter meal.

Now, for my variation on the theme.  Our traditional Easter meal is a spit-roast leg of lamb, but we often have a Black Forest ham if company is visiting, as my mother and others don't eat lamb.  However, the lamb itself doesn't go into the basket, but rather an alternative to the Sunka, such as prosciutto, bresaola, or even a loin of suho meso.  Also, I am not that fond of kolbasi personally, so I use dry stick pepperoni instead.   And, in place of the slanina, which is hard to find, I use pancetta or Amish bacon.   As for the cheese, a hrudka takes some time to make properly, so in its stead a block of feta or a ball of string mozarella suffices.   The salt, paska, and of course the butter lamb all remain the same, as they have an important part, and although I don't eat boiled eggs, the psanki are a must, and besides, they look pretty!  As for the khrin, what I use instead is an Armenian hot sauce called chaiman which I make myself, and here is the basic recipe for it:

1 part allspice
2 parts paprika
1 part powdered fenugreek
1 part cumin
1 part cayenne pepper
2-3 crushed cloves garlic

To make it, I take these dry spices, mix them with salt, lemon juice, olive oil, and a little water, and stir it until it is the consistency of a pancake batter.  It is traditionally eaten on fresh pita bread, but also makes a good marinade paste for lamb, and is also the chief ingredient in a type of delicious Armenian dried beef called pasterma.  And, it is a perfect substitute for both khrin in the Easter basket as well as for maror in the Passover Seder.  I try to make a batch of that up every year for our Easter dinner, as it accents the lamb well.  This year though, being the local Armenian church near us is having a Palm Sunday bake sale, I might just pick up some of the packaged version instead. 

I wish each and every one of you a blessed Easter season, as as Holy Week approaches, I say to you, "Kristos Voskrese, voistinu voskrese!"

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