Paska is a traditional golden dessert bread that people all over Poland, the Ukraine, Romania, Georgia, and Russia tear apart every Easter Sunday. The loaf is puffy, the interior chewy, and each specimen comes topped with decorations made from the same rolled dough. And thanks to this city’s Eastern European expats, who clamor after paska because it’s the shareable holiday tradition they grew up with, you can find this bread lining the shelves of many Eastern European bakeries right now.
Walk into Nita’s European Bakery (40-10 Greenpoint Avenue, Queens; 718-784-4047), for instance, where a paska goes for $15. You’ll find some of the most appetizing Romanian paska in the city on these shelves, and it will drag your eyes away from the chocolate rum-soaked cakes and walnut meringue.
Observe the regulars. After five minutes of haggling in Romanian at Nita’s, Mircea, a local customer, drops a wad of twenties on the counter for his Easter order. It’s a three-digit bill for all the paska breads he wants this year. “It’s better here,” he says. “It’s the texture.”
Silica Milea, one of the bakers at Nita’s, starts punching the traditional dough at eight in the morning, folding in dried cherries and raisins. A bit of the bread is sweet enough on its own, but this is Romanian paska, and so the crumb surrounds a sunken sweet cheese-filled middle. It’s like a bread-cheesecake hybrid, and the filling is only a few scoops of sugar away from being frosting. But this is dessert bread, after all.
If you’d like a version that’s less sweet, look for a Polish iteration. At Jaslowiczanka Bakery (163 Nassau Ave, Brooklyn; 718-389-0263), a Polish bakery in Greenpoint, owner and baker Bobby Kowalski says the secret to his paska is three flours. (To start, he stirs high-gluten, softasilk, and four-star together before adding the eggs, sugar, butter, and yeast.) It comes out of the oven plump and sweet, but it’s much less dessert-like than the Romanian version.
“In my family, once we share the piece of paska, we can begin to celebrate with all the other Easter foods,” says Kowalski, who grew up in Wroclaw, Poland. “Everybody rips a chunk. Some people like to dip it into butter.”
You can also buy Jaslowiczanka Bakery’s paska breads at the East Village Meat Market (139 Second Avenue, 212-228-5590) for $7.50. The small version goes for $3.50. “When people finally get it, they’re so happy and they bring it to their parents and grandparents,” Kowalski says.
Across Eastern Europe, paska is “almost like a communion that unites the family when they partake of it on Easter,” says Lubow Wolynetz, the curator of the folk art collection at The Ukrainian Museum (222 East 6th Street, 212-228-0110) in the East Village.
In more superstitious times in 6000 B.C., the Ukrainians’ was an agrarian society. Wolynetz says that farmers baked paskas so the sun god would give them a good harvest. Later came Christianity, and people baked paska with Christian symbolism for Easter after that.
“Back in ancient times, the paska decoration was solar motifs,” says Wolynetz. “Then with Christianity, we did decorations of the cross. I make one solar one and one Christian one to be sure.”
Ukrainians now carry their paska breads to church in baskets so that they can be blessed by clergy. Even though it’s supposed to be a time to be kind to your neighbors, no one is safe from bread-shaming. “Each housewife wants her paska to be the best-looking one, because you want to make sure your neighbor doesn’t criticize you when you take it in public,” Wolynetz explains. “If somebody makes a really bad one, they’ll say, ‘Oh, she made a paska thunder and lightning couldn’t break.’?”
The yeast can be finicky. Too thick, and it’s not airy enough. Too thin, and it falls apart. So bakers are still superstitious. “When you’re ready to put it in the oven, walk around,” says Wolynetz with a laugh. “If you sit down, then the paska might go flat. People still adhere to that tradition.”
If you want to make your own, here’s Wolynetz’s recipe for her eggy Ukrainian-style paska. Just keep it moving and you’ll be fine.
Recipe for Lubow’s Traditional Ukrainian Paska
2 oz. fresh yeast (or 2 packages of dry yeast) 1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon milk
2-3 tablespoons warm water
Dissolve the yeast in the above mixture; wait until it bubbles and foams, and then make a sponge by adding:
4 cups sifted flour
2 cups warm milk
Mix all ingredients well in a mixer. Transfer the sponge into a large bowl and place it in a warm spot. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a dishcloth and wait until the sponge rises.
3 whole eggs
8 egg yolks
8 tablespoon sugar
1 envelope Oetker vanilla sugar (or 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract)
juice of 1 orange
rind of 1 lemon
1 jigger of rum or other spirit
1/4 teaspoon of salt
8 cups of flour (approximately 1/4 lb. unsalted butter, melted)
Egg wash: 2-3 egg yolks
1-2 teaspoon water
Mix together until smooth
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Beat whole eggs, egg yolks, and the sugars well, until light and fluffy. Add the sponge and the rest of the ingredients except the melted butter. Knead for a few minutes, then add the melted butter. Knead well for about 1/2 to 3/4 of an hour, until the dough is elastic. The dough will be very stiff. If it is too stiff, add 1/4 cup milk. Place the dough in a large bowl in a warm spot. Cover it with plastic wrap or a dishcloth and let it rise until double in volume.
When dough is ready, pound it down and transfer it to a kneading board. Cover it with a dishcloth and let it rest for about 10 minutes.
Prepare two or three round baking pans by greasing and sprinkling them with flour. Divide the dough into as many parts as you have pans plus one extra part for the decorations. Fill each pan 1/3 full with dough. Make dough decorations. Baste the tops of the dough in pans with egg whites and place the decorations on top. The decorations should consist of solar motifs, square crosses, scrolls, braids, rosettes, birds, etc. Place the pans in a warm spot. Cover with dishcloth and let the dough rise until it reaches the top of each pan. Brush the tops with the egg wash. Bake in a preheated oven at 350 degrees for 10 minutes, and then 325 degrees for an additional 45 minutes.
When ready, take the pans out of the oven and cool the paska in the pans. When cool, carefully take them out of the pans and place gently on a cloth-covered pillow. Allow to cool completely.