For our first entrée into European breads, we’re again following a holiday track. Paska is a traditional Ukrainian Easter bread (there’s a Russian version as well, called kulich), tall and stately, enriched with milk, butter, sugar, and a boatload of eggs, and ornately decorated in celebration of both the holiday and the season. Sometimes it includes citrus zest, sometimes a splash of liquor, and sometimes even raisins. Typically the decoration, which can use up to a third of the total dough, includes braids, twists, intricate crosses and sun symbols, and sometimes flowers or birds or other indications of springtime.
My favorite detail about this bread is that it was frequently baked on Good Friday, then taken to church on Holy Saturday to be blessed by the priest before it was eaten on Easter. I’ve seen some speculation this may have been due to its pre-Christian origins – a bread that is originally made to celebrate the coming of spring, covered in dough-shaped symbols of fertility, might need a little shepherding back into the Christian fold (all puns intended). Korena in the Kitchen, my main recipe source, includes some other fascinating traditions surrounding this bread in her post about it.
Since part of spring celebrations – Christian and otherwise – involve acknowledging return to life and freedom from fasts brought on by the scarcity of winter or the restrictions of Lent, this bread is about abundance. Not only is it a sweet dough that requires plenty of rising time; it traditionally makes a huge quantity. The “Ur” recipe that seems to be floating around out in the internet world – at least what many of the sites I looked at seem to use or match up with – involves a staggering 12 cups of flour, 3 whole eggs and 8 egg yolks, an entire stick of butter and equal amount of vegetable oil, oh, and ANOTHER egg (at least!) to glaze the top. Marie Porter, in her bread-fueled reminiscence of childhood Easters, basically fills every loaf pan in her kitchen trying to contain it all.
I elected to halve the recipe. This is of course not simple when dealing with odd numbers of eggs, so I polled the cooks in my family and R., of course, had the answer: “Just beat up the whole eggs, measure out half, and have a scramble for lunch with the other half.” Works for me. I’ve included measurements below.
To achieve the traditional look, a paska should have tall, straight sides, with all the decoration crowded in on the top. If you have a tall-sided cake pan, use that. If not, as you can see in my photos, you can construct a collar out of parchment paper – be sure it’s long enough to wrap all the way around the inside of your baking pan plus a bit (I didn’t, which is why my loaf is a little wonky in shape), then fold it in half for a double layer. Remembering a similar move with souffles in an old Great British Baking Show episode, I tried fastening the edges of my parchment together with a paperclip. This was semi-successful, though it would have worked better if I’d followed my own advice here and used just one long sheet of parchment, not two. The dough is persistent, and it pushed its way through, creating gaps where my parchment connected.
Most recipes recommend waiting until this loaf is completely cool before tearing into it, ahem, slicing out wedges. We couldn’t wait that long, and ate embarrassingly big pieces as an afternoon snack while it was still warm. And you know what? Even though that’s not traditional, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Somewhere between cake and bread, lightly sweet and somehow not overly eggy, this probably won’t replace challah as my typical Easter bake, but it will certainly make a more-than-occasional-appearance.
Mainly adapted from Olga Drozd on Ukrainian Classic Kitchen and Korena in the Kitchen
Makes 1 large round 9-inch loaf
5-6 hours, including rising/resting time
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1½ teaspoons sugar
1½ teaspoons flour
2 tablespoons warm water
6 cups flour (you may use less) – I combined all-purpose and bread flour: about 3 cups of each
1 cup warm milk
1½ whole eggs (¼ cup or 2 fluid ounces) (I agree this is annoying, but you can eat the other egg-and-a-half for lunch, right?)
4 egg yolks
1/3 cup granulated sugar
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon vanilla
Zest of ½ a lemon (optional)
Zest of ½ an orange (optional)
2 tablespoons brandy (optional)
4 tablespoons (¼ cup) butter, melted + more to grease the pan, if you want to use butter
¼ cup vegetable oil
1 egg, separated, for decorations and glazing
- In a large bowl, combine the yeast, 1½ teaspoons sugar, 1½ teaspoons flour, and 2 tablespoons warm water. Set aside for 10-15 minutes to activate the yeast.
- Once the yeast is bubbly and smells like bread, add 2 cups of all-purpose flour and all of the milk; stir together with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon or knead by hand until well integrated, then cover and let rise 30 minutes.
- Near the end of the 30 minute rise, combine the 1½ whole eggs, 4 egg yolks, and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer and whisk with the paddle attachment until the mixture becomes pale and thick – this will take about 5 minutes.
- Add the risen yeast and flour mixture to the whisked eggs. Add the salt, vanilla, zests and brandy, if using, melted butter, and oil. Switch to the dough hook and begin to combine at the lowest speed.
- After a minute or two at the lowest speed, increase to medium low and continue to knead, adding flour as needed to create a smooth, elastic dough. I used both all-purpose and bread flour in my dough, but you could likely use all one or the other with similar results. Kneading in the stand mixer at medium low will take 7-8 minutes.
- After you bring the ingredients together you could also tip out onto a well-floured board and knead by hand, adding flour as needed. By hand this will take 10-15 minutes.
- Once you have a smooth, elastic, plastic-y dough (mine passed the windowpane test), let it rise, covered, in a large bowl for 1-2 hours until it has doubled.
- While the dough is rising, prepare the baking pan: butter or grease a 9-inch round baking pan – it’s best if this has high sides but low sides work too. Cut a piece of parchment paper long enough to make a full circle around the inside of the pan. Fold it in half so you have a double layer, then wrap it around the inside of the pan to make a kind of collar – this will ensure the loaf rises straight up instead of bulging out as it bakes. You can use a paperclip at the top to hold the edges of the collar together.
- Punch down the risen dough and remove 1/3 of it – this is for decorations. Set this 1/3 aside in a medium oiled bowl. Carefully place the other 2/3 of the dough into the prepared baking pan, being careful not to push the collar out of place. Cover both portions of dough and let rise 30 minutes.
- After the dough has rested and risen for 30 minutes, use the 1/3 portion to make decorations. A twist or braid around the outside of the loaf is traditional, as are braided or twisted crosses, suns, flowers, and other Christian or spring-like shapes.
- Separate the final egg, whisking the white until slightly frothy. Paint the top of the main loaf with the egg white, then place on your decorations. You can use toothpicks to keep them in place, but as they bake the egg white will serve as “glue.”
- With all decorations adhered, cover and rise a final 30 minutes. During this rise, preheat the oven to 350F.
- Just before baking, remove the cover from the loaf. Beat the separated egg yolk with a little bit of water, then paint this over the top of the loaf, decorations and all, for a glaze.
- Bake in the 350F oven for 10 minutes, then turn the heat down to 325F and bake an additional 45-50 minutes, until the temperature inside is at least 190F.
- Cool in the pan at least 30 minutes to ensure structural soundness, then remove from pan and parchment collar, carefully extract toothpicks, and cool on a wire rack. Most instructions say cool completely. We were only able to bring ourselves to wait an hour before slicing out fat wedges and having a taste while it was still warm.