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BAKING BABKA: The European tradition of sweet Easter breads


Here are some recipes that remind me of my grandmother and her beautiful Easter breads, with help from the late Savella Stechishin, the queen of Ukrainian cooking.


My babka was dense, filled with raisins and chopped peel, then drizzled with rum syrup..

By CINDA CHAVICH


I remember the golden braided breads my grandmother always made for Easter, but I never really thought about the time and skill that went into these elaborate efforts.

As kids, it’s the fun stuff that steals our focus — the swirled poppy seed and walnut rolls, and fruity buns — and the Easter Sunday game of tapping (bouncing, jarping) coloured hard-boiled eggs end-to-end to see which emerges unscathed.

Bread, no matter how beautiful, was not a childhood priority.

But today, I’m smitten with handmade breads of all kinds. And this year I’ve vowed to channel my grandmother’s skill, and try to bake some traditional Easter breads.

UKRAINIAN BREADS

Of course, there’s plenty to discover online these days, but nothing beats my copy of Savella Stechishin’s Traditional Ukrainian Cookery. Stechishin was a Canadian home economist and food writer and this book, published in Winnipeg in 1957, is still the last word on Ukrainian food. I’ve heard it’s even the traditional foods bible for young Ukrainians in Ukraine.

Stechishin writes clear and concise recipes, and also dives deep into Ukrainian culinary culture, describing the many foods, and especially breads, that are important for family celebrations.

I like to think of her as the Julia Child of Ukrainian cuisine, a food writer who obviously took her craft seriously.


Ukraine, being a major wheat growing region — like my Saskatchewan home — is the bread basket of Europe, producing high grade flour and a variety of distinctive national breads, she writes.

“To Ukrainians, bread is one of the holiest of all foods,” says Stechishin, who describes the tradition of honoring guests with bread and salt, and community harvest festivals devoted to wheat.

There are the beautiful rings of golden kalach, breads for weddings and Christmas eve supper. But none is as elaborate as the rich rounds of Easter paska, each decorated with a cross and taken to church on Easter morning to be blessed on this, the holiest day in the Greek Orthodox calendar.

In Traditional Ukrainian Cookery, Stechishin also includes seven recipes for the light and tender Easter Babka, with variations including Almond Babka, babka with pumpkin or rum, and Fruit-Nut Babka, studded with raisins, mixed peel and chopped almonds.




Traditional Ukrainian Cookery by Savella Stechishin is filled with lovely photos and drawings, like this tall Easter Babka.

BAKING EASTER BABKA

The braided and elaborately decorated Easter paska (though expertly detailed in Traditional Ukrainian Cookery) is out of my wheelhouse, but babka is a sweet bread I'm sure I can master.

Babka is a very delicate bread, a cross between a bread and a cake, that’s baked in a tall tin, like Italian panettone. I think my grandmother re-used large tomato juice cans, but 2-pound coffee tins work, too, as long as they’re not coated inside with plastics or chemical coatings.

The tall loaves, studded with raisins and other dried fruits, emerge with a domed or mushroom-shaped top. Stechishin advises to “tip each loaf very gently from the pan onto a cloth-covered pillow” to cool.

“Do not cool the loaves on a hard surface,” she writes. “This is extremely important. Careless handling of the baked babka may cause it to fall or settle. As the loaves are cooling, change their position very gently a few times to prevent settling.”

She also advises that babka is always sliced into rounds, with the bottom crust put back as a protective coating to prevent the delicate loaf from drying out.

It’s all a bit intimidating, but armed with her detailed instructions, I’m going to attempt an Easter bread this year. We don’t have a tall tin, but babka is also a sweet bread that's baked year round in a fluted tube pan, so that’s my plan.

Stechishin writes that the word babka is a diminutive for “woman” and the tall tin represents a “statuesque matron”, while a fluted tube pan “resembles the skirt of a peasant woman”.


I baked my babka in a bundt pan and it was sturdy — it did not fall or settle — and I drizzled it with rum syrup.

WOMEN, BABAS AND BREAD

I also like her other explanation, that “baba-bread” dates to prehistoric times “when the Ukrainian communities were ruled by women.”

“It is an established fact that the matriarchal system once existed in the life of the Ukrainians,” she writes. “It is generally believed that, in the matriarchal system, the women priestesses performed various religious rituals some of which may have been connected with the fertility of the soil; hence a special type of ritual bread, the baba-bread, may have been an essential feature of the ritual.”

It’s all such an interesting way to look at these family traditions that have been passed through the generations.

So I’m baking this week to remember my sweet grandma — with Savella Stechishin’s culinary wisdom to guide me!


RECIPES:


COUNTRY BABKA

This recipe is from Traditional Ukrainian Cookery by Savella Stechishin (Trident Pressl). Makes 2 loaves



2 teaspoons sugar

½ cup lukewarm water

2 packages dry granular yeast

1 cup scalded milk, lukewarm

1 cup flour

6 eggs

1 teaspoon salt

½ cup or more sugar

½ cup melted butter

2 tablespoons grated lemon rind

5 cups sifted flour

1 cup, or more, raisins (or a combination of raisins and chopped mixed peel)


Dissolve the sugar in the lukewarm water. Sprinkle the yeast over it and let it stand until softened. Combine with the lukewarm milk and 1 cup of flour.

Beat well, cover and allow the sponge to rise in a warm place until light and bubbly.

Beat the eggs with the salt, add the sugar gradually and continue beating. Beat in the butter and lemon rind. Combine this mixture with the sponge. Stir in the flour and knead in the bowl for about 10 minutes. This dough should be slightly thicker than for the usual babka mixture. Knead in the raisins and or mixed peel.

Cover and let rise in a warm place until double in bulk. Punch down, knead for a few times, and let it rise again.

Butter tall round baking pans with soft butter and fill them one third full. Cover and let rise in a warm place until the dough reaches the brim of the pan. It should triple in bulk.

Brush the loaves with a beaten egg diluted with 2 tablespoons of milk or water. Bake in a 375 F oven for about 10 minutes, then lower the temperature to 325 F and bake for about 30 minutes; then again lower the temperature to 275 F and continue to bake 15 minutes longer. The baking period will depend on the size of the loaves. If necessary, cover the loaves with foil to prevent scorching. The dough is very rich and scorches readily, so keep an eye on it, and use an instant read thermometer to test (should read at least 190 F at the centre of the loaf when baked).

Remove the baked loaves from the oven and let them stand in the pans for 5-10 minutes before tipping out onto a soft surface (a cloth covered pillow), gently turning the loaves while cooling to prevent falling or settling of the delicate bread.

(My bread was baked in a bundt pan, and was perfectly sturdy enough to turn out on a rack to cool without collapsing, and benefited by soaking in rum syrup).

Slice in rounds to serve. Makes 2 loaves.


RUM BABKA:

To gild the lily, drizzle this festive bread with a sweet boozy syrup while it’s still warm (best for a version baked in a bundt pan). Simply bring the sugar and water to a boil, stir to dissolve the sugar, remove from heat and add the rum. While the warm bread is still in the pan, stab it all over with a skewer, and slowly pour the syrup over top to soak it.


Rum syrup:

  • 1/2 cup (99g) granulated sugar

  • 1/4 cup (57g) water*

  • 1 to 2 tablespoons (14g to 28g) rum or Grand Marnier*

*Or substitute apple juice for the water and rum.


TIP: Loaves may also be glazed on top with icing, a mixture of 1 cup water, ½ cup sugar, and 1 tsp. honey, boiled to soft ball stage, then stirred (in one direction) until creamy, before drizzling over the cooled babka. You can also top loaves with coloured sprinkles to decorate.


GRANDMA’S POPPYSEED OR WALNUT ROLL

This is the roll my Grandma Chavich made for many dinners and celebrations. She had an old hand-crank coffee grinder that she used to grind the poppyseeds for the filling. You can now also find prepared poppyseed filling in cans in some European groceries, but my grandma made a similar sweet bread filled with ground walnuts and honey, which is equally delicious and easier to source ingredients.

My grandma made big rolls, long loaves swirled with sweet filling (see traditional shaping tip), and I’ve also adapted this idea to create a nutty sweet pan bread.


Here’s my recipe, from one of my first cookbooks, the award-winning High Plains by Cinda Chavich (Fifth House).


1 package (1 tbsp) dry yeast

¼ cup warm water missed with 1 teaspoon sugar

1 cup milk

½ cup granulated sugar

1/3 cup butter

1 large egg plus 1 egg yolk, beaten

¼ teaspoon salt

3.5-4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1 egg beaten with 2 tbsp water (to glaze top)


Filling:

4 cups walnut halves or pieces

1 cup brown sugar

½ cup whipping cream

2 eggs

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

¼ cup butter softened


Sprinkle yeast over warm sugar water and let stand for 10 minutes to proof (it should become bubbly) In a small saucepan scald the milk (heat just to a simmer and remove from heat), then stir in ½ cup of sugar and butter, stirring until the butter is melted. When cool, stir in the beaten egg and egg yolk, salt and dissolved yeast.

Put 3.5 cups of flour into a food processor or large bowl, add milk mixture, processing or mixing until dough forms a ball. If dough is too wet, add a bit more flour. The dough should be soft but not sticky.

Set dough in a greased bowl in a warm spot, cover with a clean towel and let rise for an hour, until doubled. Punch dough down and roll (or wrap well and refrigerate overnight and roll the next day).

To make the filling, grind walnuts in a food processor, then add the remaining ingredients and process to combine well.

Divide dough in half, and roll out each piece on a floured surface. Dough should be quite thin — each piece should make a rectangle of about 12 X 24 inches. Divide filling in half and spread evenly over each piece of dough. From long side, start rolling a tight jelly roll. You’ll end up with two rolled “snakes” each about 24 inches long. Pull and stretch them until they are even longer and thinner, about 40 inches long.

Form rolls into coils on a baking sheet or cut them into 8-inch lengths and arrange in 8X4-inch greased bread pans, two rolls on the bottom and three on top. Press down. Cover and allow loaves to rise again (about 45 minutes longer).

Brush loaves with a little beaten egg and water to glaze tops. Bakes in preheated 375 F oven for 35-40 minutes, until nicely browned. Remove loaves from pans and cool well before slicing. Makes 2 loaves.


Traditional shaping: To make more traditional walnut or poppyseed rolls, roll dough into two 8X15-inch rectangles, spread with filling, and roll into large oval loaves, pinching ends to seal. Place loaves on an oiled or parchment line baking sheet, glaze with egg wash and bake in preheated 350F oven for 30-40 minutes, until golden.


Cinnamon rolls: This dough can also be used to make yummy cinnamon rolls. Roll dough into two large rectangles (8X18 inches). Drizzle each with ¼ cup of melted butter and sprinkle heavily with a mixture of granulated sugar and cinnamon. Roll up, jelly roll style, slice into 12, 1½-inch discs, and set on a baking pan, covered, to rise for 45 minutes. Bake cinnamon rolls in preheated 375F oven for 20-25 minutes.


HAPPY EASTER!






©Cinda Chavich2023

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