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Feature Thu Mar 20 2008

Old World Easter

It’s Good Friday, and I’m tethered to the computer at my office in the Loop, wishing I was 10 years old again. Back then, Easter Week was an enchanting confluence of religious mysticism and sacred food traditions, all swirling around the nucleus that was my Nana’s Formica-laden kitchen in Hammond, Indiana.

In my Polish Roman Catholic family, Easter Week – with its heady aromas of incense, vinegar-laced egg dye, and rising bread – insisted on being observed. From Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday, it was a full week, more purposeful and ceremonial than Christmastime. The Apostles' feet needed to be washed, the bread baked, the eggs dyed, the Stations of the Cross walked, the butter lamb carved, and, of course, the Easter baskets blessed in a startling yet soft shower of Holy Water at the St. Casimir’s chapel.

Nana dictated the schedule (or so it seemed; the church’s Liturgical Calendar was the real taskmaster.) Her five grown daughters and their children – me, my two siblings, and our two cousins – arrived in her kitchen at the appointed time for the appointed task, which for my brother, sister and me meant running through our own backyard across the alley to Nana’s house, a bungalow built brick by brick by our Dzia Dzia, her husband.

We were then, and are now, a unit: if we were acrobatically inclined, we could have been a circus family, the Flying Wilczynskis. Instead, we are a food family (the Eating Wilczynskis?), firmly rooted by the culinary traditions passed down by Nana.

She died more than a decade ago, but every Easter Sunday we still enjoy her bread. Yeasty and sweet and dotted with golden raisins, it is perfection when lightly toasted. Best of all, the dough is versatile. Shape it into standard loaves or smaller hot-crossed buns that graced our Easter baskets. Pinch off small bits and roll kluski, finger-shaped boiled dumplings to eat alongside the Easter ham. Pat it into the bottom of a cake pan to form the crust for a decidedly ethnic cheesecake.

Or, as it happens in my family, do all three using my Nana’s bread recipe, below. Just be sure to have a butter lamb (or four) at the ready to slather liberally on bread, bun, dumpling, and, yes, even cheesecake. Caesar’s Polish Deli (901 North Damen) sells them this time of year.

Nana’s Holiday Bread
4 pkgs. cake yeast
1 c. water
1 Tblsp. sugar
4 c. golden raisins, soaked in warm water to soften, then drained well
1 c. sugar
1 c. butter, melted
2 tsp. salt
2 ½ c. scalded milk, brought to room temperature
5 lbs. flour, sifted
8 beaten eggs

1. Soften yeast in warm, but not hot, water in a small bowl. Mix in one tablespoon of sugar and set aside to allow the yeast to activate.
2. Combine the next four ingredients (raisins, sugar, butter and salt) in a very large bowl (large enough to hold 5 lbs. flour).
3. Once scalded milk has come to room temperature, add it to the raisin mixture, along with 4 cups of flour. Mix well.
4. Add the yeast and eggs and mix well.
5. Now add all of the remaining flour. This is when you’ll want to get into the dough with your hands, and begin to bring the dough together. Knead until you’ve formed a smooth dough, about 10 to 15 minutes.
6. Cover the bowl with a tea towel, and – trust tradition her, this is how Nana did it – place it between the bedspread and sheets on your bed, allowing it to rise in this warm, dark place for about an hour.
7. Once the dough has risen, punch it down and knead it a few times.
8. Separate into loaves sized to your pre-greased loaf pans.
9. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes at 375.

Hot-crossed bun option: To make hot-crossed buns, divide a loaf’s worth of dough into six equally-sized pieces, plus a small piece to use to make the crosses. Shape each of the six pieces into a round bun. Roll the remaining dough out to form a small rectangle, and cut into 12 strips. Place one strip horizontally over each of the buns. Place another strip perpendicular to the first to form a cross on each of the buns. Brush buns with an egg wash made from mixing a couple of tablespoons or water with one egg yolk. Bake at 375 for 25 to 30 minutes, or until lightly browned.

Serves 8

1. Prepare Nana’s Holiday Bread dough using the previous recipe.
2. Reserve about a loaf’s worth of dough. Meanwhile, set a pot of salted water to boil.
3. Pinch off pieces of dough roughly the size of large grapes. Roll them between your hands to form long, fat noodles, about the size of your pinkie finger.
4. Once the water has reached a rolling boil, drop in the noodles.
5. When they pop to the surface, they are ready.
6. Serve them with melted butter and salt.

Polish cheesecake
2 lbs. baker’s cheese (Note: the best bet is to visit a Polish deli, like Caesar's, and ask for baker’s cheese. My family uses a cheese called Twarog. Do not confuse this with farmer’s cheese you’d find at the megamart. Polish baker's cheese is dryer, like an almost completely dry cottage cheese.)
½ c. flour
¾ c. sugar (you can add a bit more or less, depending on your taste)
2 eggs
1 egg, separated (egg white can be added to the 2 whole eggs; egg yolk should be beaten and set aside in a small bowl)
12 oz. cream cheese
1 can evaporated milk (preferably Milnot)
2 tsp. vanilla

1. Using about a scant loaf’s worth of bread dough, pat dough into the bottom of a greased 9 by 13 inch rectangular cake pan.
2. In a large mixing bowl, using an electric mixer, whip the baker’s cheese and cream cheese together until very creamy.
3. With mixer on lowest setting, blend in evaporated milk.
4. Next, add the sugar, and blend.
5. Once the sugar is incorporated, add the flour, 2 whole eggs, and one egg white to the bowl, along with the vanilla. Beat thoroughly to combine all ingredients.
6. Pour cheese mixture over the top of the uncooked bread dough. Brush the top of the cheesecake with the reserved egg yolk.
7. Bake at 375 for about 50 minutes or until cheese is set and top of cake is lightly browned.

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jaci k / March 21, 2008 8:47 AM

your memories just brought a tear to my eye. i grew up in merrillville indiana, and my nana is still alive. she doesn't make anything anymore, but my mom and i try real hard to keep things going. she still goes to get the basket blessed almost every year. Thanks for the memory jog!

Mary Lee S / March 21, 2008 7:57 PM

You hit our customs on the head. Good job. We still are a close knit family and God willing always will be. Brought tears to my eyes because you remembered it so well. Thanks for being a great niece.

Aunt Cindy / March 27, 2008 12:10 PM

You make our hearts sing...we love you!

Aunts Cindy, Mary Lee, Suzie & Stoney

chris Jones / April 9, 2008 11:25 PM

Beautifully said!! Your article took me back to being 10. I really enjoyed it. As I was reading your article, I was thinking that I would love to have your Nana's recipe...There it was!! Thanks so much.

Chris Jones
Also, had our basket blessed at St. Casimir's!!

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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