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.”
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 www.post-gazette.com/stories/life/food/this-is-pittsburgh-food-648106.
Paska (Ukrainian Easter Bread)
- 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
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