Gretchen McKay

Pittsburgh Food: Family puts its eggs, other holiday fare in one basket

On Easter Saturday, this basket full of food and decorative eggs will be taken to Saints Peter and Paul Ukrainian Church in Ambridge to be blessed. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette


Sometime around 10 a.m. on Sunday, Stella Woytovich and her daughter Justine will gather with family in their neat-as-a-pin Baden home and, as they have on more Easters than anyone can remember, dig into a huge brunch.

There will be a ham glazed with bourbon and brown sugar, paired with buttery scrambled eggs or some sort of frittata. The dining room table, set with their best linens, also will hold squat links of local Saffron’s homemade kielbasa that Justine has gently roasted in the oven. The French toast will be made with paska, a sweet bread that’s an Easter tradition among the faithful with Eastern European backgrounds.

Stella, who’s a vibrant 86, has been baking this rich, eggy bread with the pretty braided top for more than 50 years now. She learned how from her mother, also named Stella, who brought the recipe with her when she immigrated in 1910 to the U.S. from Galitzia, in present-day Ukraine. It’s a tradition dear to the heart of every Ukrainian.

Just last week, the petite grandmother of two spent an entire day making the bread she so adores, toasted and slathered with butter, for breakfast; today, Holy Thursday, which commemorates the last supper of Jesus with his apostles, she’ll mix, knead and bake several more of the high, round loaves for family and friends to enjoy over the holiday weekend.

Stella figures she’ll make two or three recipes throughout the day. “The little boys next door love it and I also give some to two couples across the street.”

She’ll cheat, a bit, with a KitchenAid mixer.

In the old days, she did batch after batch by hand as taught by her mother, who, after marrying Hnat Woloczyn, settled in a house on Beaver Road in Leetsdale and raised seven children. But it’s a little harder now that she’s in her 80s, and it’s not like anyone who eats it — and there are many — can tell the difference.

Recipes vary depending on the culinary traditions of the baker, as it’s also popular among Russians, Poles and Polish-Americans. But the bread always includes lots of eggs and butter along with sugar and milk. Stella’s secret ingredient is Spanish saffron, a rare and expensive spice that gives her paska its lovely, buttery color and earthy taste.

“We get it for her for her birthday or Mother’s Day,” says Justine.

The prettiest loaf will be set aside for an event mother and daughter look forward to all year long, to help celebrate the holiest day of the year: Sviachenia, or the traditional blessing of the food to be eaten on Easter Sunday.

One of the most beloved and enduring Ukrainian traditions on Holy Saturday, the basket blessing will take place at Saints Peter and Paul Ukrainian Catholic Church in Ambridge. This is where Stella got married to John Woytovich in 1946 and Justine was baptized a year later; the sprawling century-old parish on 6th Street also is where John, who worked as a scarfer at Spang-Chalfont Co., was memorialized after he died of emphysema in 1978, at age 53. Justine’s sister, Christine McKenna, who lives just around the corner, also was married there.

“We’re very busy there,” says Stella. “It’s always been the center of our family.”

It is for others, too: So many hundreds of parishioners want their baskets blessed that SS Peter & Paul — where they still say one mass Sunday in Church Slavonic, the primary liturgical language of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine — offers two services, one at noon and another at 2 p.m. Actually, this blessing-of-the baskets is a time-honored ritual for Catholics everywhere; the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh’s website lists dozens of churches across the city and neighboring counties that offer the activity as part of the Easter triduum.

“Even in 2013, this tradition has profound meaning,” says Father Michael Polosky, who’s been pastor for nearly 20 years. “And it’s not just old folks.”

Nor is it just parishioners who warm the pews each and every Sunday, Stella notes with a mischievous smile. “You see people you haven’t seen for a long time.”

Butter molded into the shape of a lamb for Easter. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

The decorated baskets are carried into the high-school gym, where they’re placed on tables lined up in long rows on the basketball court. Each contains a lighted candle — symbol of the radiance of the resurrected Christ — in addition to the foods, each of which is symbolic. After reciting prayers, Father Polosky offers the traditional Easter greeting in Church Slavonic: Khrystos Voskres! Christ is Risen! To which the congregation responds: Voistyno Voskres! Indeed He is Risen!

The baskets then are taken home, and the food is put in the refrigerator to await the big Easter meal the next day — a final test of self-control in the 40-day Lenten period of fasting and abstaining.

“It smells so good, but you can’t eat it,” says Justine. Particularly torturous is the smoky perfume of the kielbasa, which “hits you every time you open the fridge door!”

While it’s not a competition, everyone can’t help but compare linen-lined baskets, which, even when they’re on the modest side, are a sight to behold. Along with various meats and lamb-shaped butter, they hold sinus-clearing chrin, a bitter-sweet mixture of grated red beets and horseradish; and custard-like hrudka, a type of sweet cheese. A loaf of paska also gets tucked into the wicker, along with eggs and a container of salt.

What immediately catches the eye in Stella and Justine’s basket are the pysanky, the colorful and delicate Easter eggs decorated with traditional Ukrainian folk designs. It’s hard not to reach out and touch them, they’re so exquisite. Most were crafted decades ago by Stella’s sister-in-law Mildred Rohal, who was so dedicated to the batik-style art form (and good at it) that she continued decorating the hollow eggs even when her fingers pointed sideways because of arthritis.

“Every year she’d give us a few,” says Justine. She displays the most intricate of the designs year-round in a shadowbox on the dining room wall.

Aunt Mildred also made a richly embroidered scarf symbolizing Christ’s shroud that the women place on the basket before it’s blessed. It carries the traditional Paschal greeting “Xphctoc Bockpeci” embroidered in Cyrillic letters ( “Christ is Risen”).

Each of the foods holds a special meaning within the Catholic faith, even if the faithful don’t always remember what, exactly. The eggs speak of new life and resurrection, and the paska is a symbol of Jesus Christ, the Bread of Life. Necessary for flavor, salt reminds Christians of their duty to one another. Horseradish, especially mixed with grated beets, is symbolic of Christ’s passion and the blood he shed. Ham is symbolic of great joy and abundance. Kielbasa represents generosity. The candle, which somehow never manages to catch the basket’s contents on fire (though it has scorched the occasional handle), represents Christ as the Light of the World.

The women continue the tradition their ancestors carried over from Europe, because to do otherwise would be unimaginable.

“We’ve done it all our lives,” says Stella.

But it’s also about the future.

“It gets not only individuals together, but the whole church family,” says Justine. “It pulls everyone back to the church.”

This is Pittsburgh Food

This is one in a series of stories on local food traditions by Gretchen McKay and videographer and photographer Steve Mellon. Find past installments at

Paska (Ukrainian Easter Bread)

Paska is a traditional Ukrainian Easter bread. This one is flavored with saffron. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette
  • 3 1/4-ounce packages dry yeast
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 3/4 cup warm water
  • 3 cups milk, or 1 cup powdered milk mixed into 3 cups water
  • 2 cups melted butter
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Pinch saffron, soaked in warm water and strained
  • 12 whole eggs, beaten
  • 5 pounds high-gluten bread flour (20 cups), sifted, plus more if needed
  • 1/8 cup oil (for counters)
  • Beaten egg for brushing

Mix 3 packages of yeast with 3 tablespoons sugar, and add to warm water. Mix and let stand for 5 to 10 minutes.

In a 17-quart pot, heat 3 cups milk, or 3 cups water mixed with 1 cup of powdered milk, until hot. Add butter, sugar and salt. Mix and then let cool. Add saffron and beaten eggs. Beat everything together with a hand mixer.

Add 1/2 of the flour (10 cups) and mix again. Add yeast mix, mix gently by hand and let rise until double in bulk in a warm oven.

Knead down and add remaining flour and mix by hand to make a soft (not sticky) dough. Use all of remaining and possibly some more flour.

Let rise until double in bulk. Put small amounts of dough into mixer (double handfuls) and knead with dough hood for about 3 minutes each. Put back into pan until all of the dough is kneaded.

Form into loaves on a lightly oiled surface and put into greased bread pans. Put bread pans on top of stove to rise (covered with a cloth to keep warm). When you press the top of the loaf with your finger and it springs back, it is not done rising; when it leaves a hole, it is done and can be put into the oven to bake.

After the dough rises (it should be above the top of the pans) brush tops of loafs with a beaten egg. Bake in a 350-degree oven for approximately 35 minutes. Bread should sound hollow when thumped on the bottom after removing it from pan.

Makes 7 or 8 loaves, depending on size of pan. Recipe can be cut in half.

— Stella Woytovich, Baden

Horseradish and beets. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette









Beets and horseradish

  • 1 or 2 15-ounce cans of beets, drained
  • 8-ounce jar of horseradish
  • 1 tablespoon sugar (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon vinegar (optional)

Chop beets in food processor to desired fineness. Add 1 tablespoon at a time or less of horseradish to taste.

If horseradish already has vinegar and sugar in it, don’t add any more. If not, add 1 tablespoon sugar and 1 tablespoon vinegar to taste.

Put beet mixture in jar and refrigerate. Makes 1 to 2 cups.

— Stella Woytovich, Baden

Glazed Easter Ham

  • 3/4 cup bourbon
  • 2 cups brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon dry mustard
  • 3/4 cup ground cloves
  • Some orange rind to taste (optional)
  • Easter ham

Mix bourbon, sugar, mustard, cloves and orange rind, if using, in a small bowl. Pour over ham.

Bake ham uncovered in a 350 degree oven just until warm, 30 to 45 minutes, basting it 2 or 3 times to get a nice glaze. (Since it is already cooked , you don’t want to dry it out, just get it hot and glazed.)

Remove from oven, and let it sit for a few minutes before serving. To serve, pour some of the glaze over the slices.

If you’re not immediately eating the ham, store it in the refrigerator sitting in the glaze.

— Justine Woytovich, Baden


Female runners self-defense: Stay aware

It was a beautiful, sunny day when Leah Yingling set out on June 15, 2010, for what she thought was going to be a routine three-miler on one of Johnstown’s most popular running trails.

If only.

As she recounted at Pittsburgh Marathon’s inaugural Safe Strides self-defense course for female runners at Bakery Square on Feb. 21, the experience instead was a chilling reminder of the danger women can face when they run solo.

Even when they jog on familiar turf.

Even when the workout’s in broad daylight.

Back home after her freshman year at Carnegie Mellon University, Ms. Yingling had just finished lunch with her twin sister, Kelsi, when she decided to go for a quick run. Tying on her Brooks PureFlows, she headed to James Mayer Riverwalk Trail, a secluded hiking and biking trail that follows the abandoned Johnstown and Stony Creek Railroad built by the Johnson Steel Co. in 1891.

It was a route the 19-year-old had run dozens, if not hundreds, of times during high school without incident. So this time, too, Ms. Yingling didn’t take any special precautions as she headed into the woods, and in fact left a small container of pepper spray on the seat of her car in favor of her cell phone.

A mile into the out-and-back run, her luck changed. Standing ahead on the deserted trail was a man wearing a hooded sweatshirt. As she veered to the left to step around him, he pulled out a knife, stepped into her path and grabbed her. When she screamed, he put the knife to her throat and tried to drag her into the bushes to sexually assault her.

During the struggle, Ms. Yingling somehow managed to find her cellphone in her pocket and dial 911. When her attacker realized it, he ripped the phone from her hand and fled. He was caught a few hours later and sentenced last year to eight to 16 years in state prison for the assault.

Others have not been so lucky.

While running is a relatively safe sport statistically, there are people out there who mean to do runners harm. Realistically, females are bigger targets for assault than males for obvious reasons. Ignoring that fact will not make them less of a target.

Just last month, a woman was raped on the Provo River Trail in Provo, Utah, while running after dark. Female joggers also were attacked on trails in Lewisville, Texas, in January; on Katy Trail in Dallas in November; on Capital Crescent Trail in Bethesda, Md., in October; and on Northern Virginia’s Four Mile Run Trail in July.

“It’s a growing problem,” said Road Runners Club of America executive director Jean Knaack, in part because more females than ever are running — some 7.6 million females finished U.S. road races in 2011 — and for longer distances. “But women really don’t want to hear it.”

According to Running USA, women now account for the majority of entrants (59 percent) in the 13.1-mile half-marathon, a distance that can require 30 or more miles a week at the height of training. Because so many work, many of those miles are logged when women are alone, in isolated areas, at off hours — with the birds before dawn or after work at dusk.

Pittsburgh Marathon race director Patrice Matamoros’ approach to the annual footrace, which this year will be May 5, always has been to focus on the athlete as much as the race. So when a friend told her about a runners’ self-defense course women’s safety expert Jennifer Gray developed for RunHERS of Oklahoma City, she decided she, too, should offer a program here in Pittsburgh, “because one of the most important things we can do is take care of you while you run.”

Turns out, her husband knew the perfect man to teach it: Self-defense expert/ex-Navy SEAL Craig Douglas of Mississippi, who spent 21 years working as a cop, nine of them in narcotics.

Leah Yingling talks during Safe Strides, a free personal self-defense program designed specifically for female runners, hosted by Pittsburgh Marathon. Ms. Yingling had been assaulted along a trail near Johnstown. Post-Gazette

Because assaults on runners can and do happen anywhere — small towns, big cities, downtown parks, suburban trails — Mr. Douglas’ main message was that women need to be totally aware of their environment. The earlier you can spot a potential problem developing, the more you can do to avoid or manage it.

The ultimate opportunists, “bad guys are looking for easy victims,” he told the crowd. “They’re the ultimate opportunists. They attack when conditions favor them the most and you the least.”

One obvious — but often ignored — way to increase awareness is to lose the music if you’re running alone in an isolated area, even if it means your run will be more boring. Runners get attacked from behind because the assailant knows you can’t see them; wearing headphone means you can’t hear them, either.

“You cannot put headphones on and tune out because that really does increase the possibility of you being a victim, ” Ms. Knaack said. The vast majority of reported attacks, in fact, are on women wearing headphones, she said, although newspapers often are reluctant to report it for fear of placing blame on the victim. That’s why safety tips included in those stories invariably include “don’t run with headphones.”

“It’s a veiled message.”

Runners also need to avoid activities that distract or make you oblivious to your surroundings, such as talking on a cell phone or fumbling too long with your shoelaces.

“Task fixation is like a moth to the flame for bad guys,” Mr. Douglas said.

Once on the trail, stay alert so you can assess strangers coming toward you for any potential threat. While you never know for certain what’s going on in a person’s head, there is body language that strongly relates to criminal behavior. For instance, Mr. Douglas said, a criminal often makes a “grooming” gesture before he attacks: He might rub the back of his head or neck, touch this face or cover his mouth.

Other pre-attack indicators are target glancing (looking to the left or right or behind you as you approach) and a discernible weight shift. If someone is going to pull a knife or attack you, he’s going to shift his weight from one foot to another so he has a base to move explosively.

Bad guys tend to telegraph their intentions, so furtive movements of the hands around the waist should also raise your hackles.

“That knife or gun doesn’t just magically appear,” Mr. Douglas noted. “It has to come from somewhere.”

Predators also might try to engage you in conversation, knowing it will cause you to lose your focus.

For someone to assault you, they have to get their hands on you. So always maintain distance when you pass someone you don’t know or who makes you uncomfortable and keep your hands close to your body and relatively high; it will reduce the amount of time it takes to cover your head with your hands if you’re attacked. If you have to pass closely, square your hips so it’s harder for them to bump you. If you have to shout for them to get out of your way, that’s OK, too.

“If you have space, you have time,” he said.

And what if the unspeakable happens?

If you can get away, that’s the best outcome. If you can’t, drop your weight to a level change like a wrestler (it will help you stay upright) and put your hands up to your head.

“You can’t fight semi-conscious,” Mr. Douglas said. “You need to protect your ‘computer’ so you can keep thinking.”

If you can get a shot in, go for the eyes.

Jennifer Gray, in an article in RRCA’s newsletter, recommends staying calm and going to the ground in a “false surrender.” If the attacker thinks you’ve given up, he’ll stop fighting to hold you down; that makes it easier to execute an escape.

Ms. Knaack of RRCA hopes courses like the one offered by Pittsburgh Marathon will become part of a growing trend. Already, one big name has embraced the idea. In January, Olympic runner Todd Williams launched RUNSAFER, an array of seminars and workshops to teach self-defense techniques to runners. It will be offered at specialty stores and gyms that teach martial arts and self-defense. (To date, the closest one to Pittsburgh will be offered at Mojo Running in West Chester, Ohio, in October; for more information, visit

The goal of the program, Mr. Williams said, who in 2012 earned a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, a martial art that focuses on grappling and ground fighting, isn’t to scare runners off running alone but rather to put one more tool into their runners’ toolbox.

“It’s for ‘just in case,’ ” he said. “So you feel more empowered.”

Which brings us back to the beginning of the story. Ms. Yingling said it took her about a month to feel comfortable running again after her attack, “and when I say ‘comfortable,’ I mean able to leave my house … absolutely everything made me anxious.” Learning not think about the “what-ifs” took even longer.

With each step forward, though, she became stronger. In May, she’s running the Pittsburgh Marathon on behalf of Girls on the Run SoleMates, a nonprofit character development program for girls that combines running activities with lessons in nutrition, body image and social issues.

“People always think, ‘It’s not going to happen to me,’ or that you only get attacked at night time,” said Ms. Yingling, 21, who will graduate from CMU with a degree in material sciences and engineering two weeks after the race. “But the truth is, runners often aren’t as lucky as I was. You need to be alert.”

For safety tips, see: