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4/9/2017 11:24:00 AM
Polish Easters built on traditions of faith and food
Alicia Fiszer’s sister made these eggs, first blowing out the contents, then using hot wax and dye for the beautiful designs. Simpler traditional eggs are dyed with onion skins or beet coloring.

Alicia Fiszer’s sister made these eggs, first blowing out the contents, then using hot wax and dye for the beautiful designs. Simpler traditional eggs are dyed with onion skins or beet coloring.

Ted and Alicia Fiszer manage Grandpa’s Cafe, in the basement of Portland’s Polish Hall. The traditional babka cake on the table is a standard at a table filled with food for the Easter breakfast.

Ted and Alicia Fiszer manage Grandpa’s Cafe, in the basement of Portland’s Polish Hall. The traditional babka cake on the table is a standard at a table filled with food for the Easter breakfast.

Traditional Babka

Also known as: Babka to be prepared on the weekend with a big enough pan or adjusted recipe.

Babka is a sweet bread, perfect for those of us who don’t usually like cakes because they’re too sugary. The one I made was delicious and was quickly eaten — despite being displayed naked, after its burned top and sides were sawed off.

It’s like an Italian panettone, a perfectly balanced, slightly sweet bread that for some reason is called a cake.

The recipe that follows for a traditional babka can be found on a variety of websites. I take responsibility for the issues I encountered with the recipe. Still, they allow me to bear witness to why a baker really, truly should always read a recipe through to the end — seeing, for instance, that this one calls for the dough to rise four times, meaning this isn’t a project to begin at, say, 5:30 p.m. after work.

Also in the way of a stating-the-obvious warning: This recipe will leave you with 15 egg whites looking for a home. You could make an angel food cake with them but its sweetness won’t compare favorably with the babka. Next time maybe I’ll try the “Napoleon Bonatart” on television chef Carla Hall’s “The Chew” website. It calls for 15 egg whites whipped with cream of tartar, baked and then layered with pastry cream, whipped cream and jam.

Another warning: I broke a wooden spoon stirring the batter. Use your strongest one and be careful.

My next hard-earned warning begins with a question: How many pots and pans can one kitchen hold? If you’re like most cooks (including me) you eyeball a recipe and decide that even though it calls for a 12x10-inch casserole dish, your 13x10-inch will be fine. Or even your 10x10-inch, in a pinch.

My 10-inch-and-a-bit, average-sized bundt pan did not adequately substitute for a 12-inch bundt pan. And my biggest bowl wasn’t up to the task of holding in this enthusiastic dough. For the third rising, I turned my back on it for a half hour too long and discovered it had overpowered the bowl, spilling over and throughout the side oven where it was rising. I cleaned nearly a cup of the sticky dough off the rack, door and bottom of the oven. There was also a fair amount attached to the greased plastic wrap I used.

So when I finally put the dough into the bundt pan, it didn’t have all the recipe. Again it eagerly rose. I put it into the oven after it had doubled and it continued to rise in the heated oven, far above the top of the pan.

After several searches online I still can’t find a 12-inch bundt pan. Tube pans and bundt pans are about 10 inches. Or smaller.

A final mishap to share: This recipe calls for 50 minutes baking. I got the cake/bread into the oven about 9:30 p.m. and should have stayed in the kitchen, because my oven evidently bakes hot. Forty minutes would have done it. Or adjusting the temperature. Next time I’ll do that, checking on the babka’s progress regularly after 35 minutes. I’ll also either divide the dough to both my tube pan and my bundt pan or I’ll do some math and use two-thirds of what the recipe calls for. Either way, it will bake for fewer minutes.

—    Kristen Hannum

Traditional Babka


    1 cup milk

    3 1/3 cups all-purpose flour

    2 packages active dry yeast (4 1/2 teaspoons if you’ve got a jar)

    1/4 cup lukewarm water

    2/3 cup sugar

    2 teaspoons salt

    15 large egg yolks (room-temperature)

    1 teaspoon vanilla

    1/4 teaspoon almond extract

    1/2 cup melted butter

    3/4 cup candied citrus rind (optional)

    1/2 cup chopped almonds

    1/3 cup raisins


Leave 15 eggs out for a few hours so they can get to room temperature.

Scald the milk and pour it into your most enormous bowl. Mix in 3/4 cup of the flour and cool.

Dissolve the yeast in the water and let stand five minutes. Add 1 tablespoon of the sugar and let stand another five minutes. Add to cooled milk mixture, combining well. Cover and let rise until doubled. (First rising)

In another bowl, combine the salt and egg yolks and beat until thick and lemon-colored, about five minutes. Add remaining sugar and the vanilla and almond extracts, mixing thoroughly. Pour the egg mixture into the yeast-milk mixture, beating well together.

Add the rest of the flour and, using a strong wooden spoon, beat vigorously for 10 minutes. Add butter and beat an additional seven to 10 minutes — the first half of which will be incorporating the butter into the dough. By the end, the sticky, viscous dough will be a testimony to the power of gluten.

Beat in the almonds, raisins and, if you’re using it, the orange rind. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula, cover with plastic wrap or waxed paper and let rise until doubled in the same bowl. (Second rising.) Punch down dough and let rise again until doubled. (Third rising.)

Coat a 12-inch bundt or tube pan with butter or cooking spray. Punch down the dough and transfer to prepared pan. Cover and let rise until the dough has again doubled. (Fourth rising.) Heat oven to 350 F.

Bake about 50 minutes (or less — keep an eye on it). It should be a nice tanned color.

Cool in the pan for 10 minutes and invert onto rack to cool. Leave plain or give it a dusting of confectioners' sugar. Alicia Fiszer drizzles hers with an icing.

St. Stanislaus parishioner Malgorzara Kawalec admits she misses how her entire town in Poland would dress up for Easter.

She hurries to say she understands America’s diversity precludes that happening here, and that’s fine, but still. It’s something she misses, something she can’t recreate in her new life in Portland.

“And there’s no day off on Monday,” she says — to the keen agreement of everyone at the table.

Easter Monday in Poland is a holiday known as Smigus-Dyngus (Wet Monday), a kind of April Fools Day across the country, but with just one prank. Children, teens and even adults ambush one another and douse their targets with buckets of water.

The Sunday crowd at Grandpa’s Cafe, across the street from St. Stanislaus in North Portland, speaks in a mix of Polish and English. They shrug their shoulders and laugh at the memories. “The kids have so much fun,” Marek Stepien says of Smigus-Dyngus.

While on Portland streets, there may be no universal dressing up — or wetting down — for Easter and Easter Monday, the Polish community at St. Stanislaus has brought delicious and deeply faith-filled Polish Easter customs of Holy Week, from Palm Sunday to the Easter vigil.

The community ensures their memories from Poland aren’t lost. St. Stanislaus parishioner Alicia Fiszer, for instance, is scheduling the best day to teach parish childnren the intricate art of decorating eggs with colors and melted wax.

Fiszer and her husband, Ted Fiszer, managers of the cafe, hail from different parts of Poland, but they and their guests share similar memories of Easter, from Palm Sunday through Holy Week, Easter and Easter Monday.

“Everything about the Polish Easter traditions are religious — even when it’s not obvious,” says Kawalec.

An example, she says, is the spring cleaning tradition where homes are cleaned inside and out — walls, windows, floors, walkways and grounds. “Because Jesus rises again, and lives,” she says. “It’s like starting a clean new life.”

On Holy Saturday, families took baskets to church. They were filled with the basic staff of life — eggs, sausage or ham, the little figure of a lamb, horseradish or pepper, salt, bread, vinegar and wine — appealingly arranged for the priest to bless.

“Almost everyone takes a basket to church to be blessed,” says Alicia Fiszer. “Even people who only go to church maybe that one time in the year.”

After Easter morning Mass and before the Easter breakfast, everyone in the family gets a bite of the blessed food, to carry them through the year.

Easter, the group remembers, was strictly for family. They had to wait for Smigus-Dyngus to see friends and extended family.

Alicia Fiszer remembers being a flower girl in processions of the dawn Easter Masses, scattering flower petals with the other girls as the priest carried the Blessed Sacrament. A half  dozen adults would carry a giant rosary and others carried icons three times around the church. Three times, Ted Fiszer recalls, because the devil couldn’t last three times around. “A folk tradition,” he explains.

In addition to the spring cleaning and going to church on Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday and on the Easter Vigil, Holy Week also is filled with cooking.

Traditional dishes for the Easter breakfast include zurek, a soup made with sourdough rye flour; fresh (unsmoked) sausage, smoked sausages and other cold cuts; herring in oil and onions or sour cream, parsley and onions; vegetable salads with potatoes, carrots, peas and diced pickles in mayonnaise and mustard; beets, horseradish relish, sauerkraut and fresh cabbage; and eggs, eggs, eggs — a symbol of rebirth even older than Christianity, which came to Poland on Holy Saturday, April 14, 966, when Mieszko I was baptized. (Some historians think the early king’s baptism may have something to do with the tradition of drenching neighbors with buckets of water on Smigus-Dyngus. Countering that, in 1410, a bishop of Poznan instructed his flock “not to pester or plague others in what is universally called Dyngus.” That prohibition evidently was roundly ignored.)

Ted Fiszer jokes about the amount of meat at the expansive Easter breakfast meal after Mass. “It makes up for all the protein they missed during Lent,” he says.

He also remembers a variation on deviled eggs where the hardboiled eggs were cut in half, shell and all, dressed, and then fried in butter. “It was delicious,” he says, “except for the little pieces of egg shell.”

One entire end of the sideboard would be devoted to cakes, including mazurek, a flat cake reputed to have come from Turkey in the 17th century, and the famous babka cake, a yeast cake similar to the Italian panettone. “Babka” means grandmother, and the Fiszers think its name comes from the fact that it’s baked in a fluted babka pan, making a cake shaped like grandmother’s skirt.

The centerpiece of a family’s Easter breakfast table, however, is a white lamb, often made of sugar.

“Because it is all about Jesus,” says Kawalec.

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