Polish Easter baskets filled with tradition

Polish Easter baskets are decorated with flowers, ribbons and greenery and lined with or covered by linen, which is often embroidered. The linen is symbolic of the shroud that covered the body of Jesus in the tomb.

Easter baskets will be blessed next Saturday at Holy Trinity Polish National Catholic Church. All are welcome.

The blessing will immediately follow the Holy Saturday service blessing new fire, holy water and the Easter candle, which begins at 10 a.m. The Very Rev. John Rencewicz estimates that service will take about 30 minutes. All are welcome to attend that service also, he said.

The tradition of blessing the food consumed on Easter — often Easter breakfast — is a Polish/Slavic custom that dates back to Medieval times. The Christian community asked God’s blessing on the foods that will break the Great Fast (Lent) from which they have abstained for 40 days. The foods are sanctified with the hope that spring, the season of the resurrection, will be blessed by God’s goodness and mercy. 

I remember as a child accompanying my mother and grandmother, who took food baskets to church on Holy Saturday. In those days, it was required to take communion on Easter Sunday so the lines for confession were long. The usual smell of incense and the Easter lilies and hyacinths, the traditional Polish Easter flower, on that day were replaced by the aroma of kielbasa and other delicacies.

The priest periodically escaped from his confessional, offered prayers over the foods presented and walked up and down sprinkling holy water on the decorated baskets that choked the church aisles.

Sometimes the priest was offered a sampling of the Easter goodies he was blessing. Other priests helped themselves to an item from each basket. Then the women and their baskets left, the priest returned to the confessional and a new round of baskets came in.

In addition to the traditional ethnic goodies, some families brought in large, cellophane-wrapped, candy-laden children’s Easter baskets to be blessed.

The foods in the baskets are more than just tasty. Each has symbolic meaning and religious significance. Some — lamb, bread, wine and bitter herbs — have roots in the Passover meal. Other foods, kielbasa, bacon and ham, symbolize joy and the abundance of God’s mercy. They also represent ethnic traditions and the freedom of the New Law, which came into effect through Jesus’ resurrection. They are in contrast to the Old Law, which forbade certain meats, according to information obtained on various websites.

The baskets themselves are decorated with flowers, ribbons and greenery and lined with or covered by linen, which is often embroidered. The linen is symbolic of the shroud that covered the body of Jesus in the tomb.

Foods in the basket and their symbolism include:

•Salt representing wisdom, purity and preservation. It reminds us to flavor our dealings with others by the example of Christ.

•Butter, often in the shape or a lamb — the Lamb of God —  is symbolic of the goodwill of Christ that we should have toward all things.

•Babka the sweet, eggy Easter Bread, often round and always topped with a cross symbolizing Jesus — the Bread of Life, the Risen Lord and the sweetness of life. Other baked goods, including lamb-shaped pound cakes, might also be included.

•Bread, often sourdough rye bread, the staff of life.

•Kielbasa, symbolic of God’s favor and generosity. Eastern European traditions contend the sausage links are a reminder of the chains of death that were broken when Jesus rose from the dead.

•Bacon and/or ham, symbolic of the overabundance of God’s mercy.

•Horseradish — as in the Passover meal — this bitter herb symbolizes the harshness of life and Passion of Christ. In the the Polish Easter tradition, horseradish is sweetened by mixing it with red beets — cwikta.

•Cheese including Pascha, cottage cheese, goat cheese or cream cheese, a symbol to remind Christians to show moderation for all things.

•Eggs, usually brightly decorated, symbolic of spring, new life and Christ’s resurrection from the tomb. 

•Wine, the drink of the Passover meal and Las Supper. Wine gladdens the heart and helps us enter into the joy of the resurrection and its sparkle reminds us of the glory of Easter

•Chocolates in the form of eggs, bunnies, jelly beans or sugar lambs are 20th-century additions to the baskets, symbolic of  the sweetness of life.

•Candle, the only non-edible item, represents Jesus, the Light of the World. It is lit during the blessing.

Beet Relish

(Cwikta)

2 quarts beets

1 1/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/4 cups cider vinegar

1/4 cup sugar

1/3 cup horseradish

Cook raw beets until almost tender. Drain and slip off the skins. Grate on medium size grater. Be careful as the juice stains hands and clothing. Drain juice if too watery. Bring to a boil salt, cider vinegar and sugar set aside to cool. Combine grated beets, horseradish and brine; mix thoroughly.

Yields 2 quarts. This can be frozen.

— Our Lady of Czestochowa Cookbook compiled by the Rosary Guild.

Easter Cheese

(Pascha)

5 egg yolks

2 3/4 cups sugar

1 cup coffee cream

2 pounds white farmer cheese (can substitute ricotta or dry cottage cheese)

1/2 pound unsalted soft butter

1 tablespoon vanilla

4 ounces almonds, peeled, chopped

4 ounces small raisins, steamed

Grated rind of 1 orange

Beat the egg yolks with the sugar until thick and creamy. Add half of the cream. Heat, stirring, almost to the boiling point but do not boil. Remove from the heat.

Combine in a blender the cheese, butter, remainder of the cream and vanilla. Fold in the egg mixture, mix well. Add almonds, raisins and orange rind.

Refrigerate for 4 hours. Place in the corner of a small sack (pillowcase) Hang in a cold place and allow the liquid to drain for 24 hours.

Cut small slices and serve very cold.

Serves 10.

— The Art of Polish Cooking, Alina Zeranska

Classic Easter Bread

13 cups flour

4 teaspoons salt

2 cups milk

12 eggs

1 cup sugar

4 packages dry yeast

8 tablespoons butter

6 teaspoons anise seeds

Raw eggs for decorating

Food coloring

Measure flour onto waxed paper. Combine 2 cups of flour with sugar, salt and yeast.

Combine milk and butter in saucepan and warm. (Make sure milk and butter mixture are not too hot before adding to the yeast.) Add anise seeds to warmed milk and butter mixture. This allows the oil and aroma of the seeds to come out.

Add to dry ingredients. Beat one minute on medium speed. Add eggs and additional flour — enough to make a thick dough. Beat at high speed. Stir in remaining flour until a soft dough forms. Shape into a ball and put dough into a bowl sprayed with Pam or lightly greased. Let rise.

After the dough doubles in size, punch down. This recipe should make 4 loaves of bread. It can be made into any shape.

To make a braid, cut three equal pieces of a portion of the dough and roll into logs about 16-18” long. Braid and form into ring. Let rise again until double in size.

Mix one egg yolk, 2 tablespoons of water and 1 teaspoon of sugar and brush the top of the bread.

Bake at 350° for about 15-25 minutes depending on how large your loaves are.

To decorate: Color as many raw eggs as you wish using food coloring only. After the dough is braided, cut slits in dough and place egg in slits. Uncolored eggs may also be used. The egg will cook during the baking process.

— WQED Cooks

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