Seven of the best Polish Easter dishes
From eggs with caviar to rye soup in a bread bowl, cookbook author Zuza Zak picks out the dishes that she most associates with her home country’s Easter celebrations.
When I was growing up in Poland, Easter used to be even bigger than Christmas. And the most exciting part was the tradition of preparing the Święconka basket. First, we would dye boiled eggs with red cabbage and onions skins, then engrave patterns onto them. The decorated eggs, called pisanki, would be placed on a white, embroidered napkin inside the basket, along with a sugar lamb, a bit of bread and sausage, salt and pepper, perhaps a slice of cake, some greens and a daffodil. The baskets were taken to Church to be blessed before breakfast on Easter Sunday. This is just one culinary tradition observed across Poland at Easter, but there are many dishes that play a special role this time of year.
1. Baba wielkanocna
The cake most commonly eaten around Easter in Poland is a large, yeasted, bundt cake called baba. And those who bake them take the utmost care not to drop them. In fact, some cooks don’t even allow people in the kitchen while they are in the oven, and there’s certainly no early opening of the oven door. Babas come in a huge variety of styles — for example, my mum makes a gorgeous, three-coloured baba, splitting the dough into three and flavouring each part with lemon, chocolate and poppyseed, before combining them into one.
2. Eggs with salmon roe or caviar
In Poland, there must be eggs on the Easter table, but how you prepare them is up to you. Many opt for classic devilled eggs, while some like to dye their whites with beetroot juice. In our house, however, Easter is about eggs filled with salmon roe or caviar. You simply take out the boiled yolks, fill them with roe and squeeze a bit of lemon on top, then sprinkle with parsley or dill and serve.
3. Żurek, fermented rye soup
My favourite Polish soup, Żurek, is traditionally served in a hollowed-out bread bowl, with hard boiled eggs and white sausage inside. The soup is based on żur, a fermented rye mixture flavoured with garlic, that gives the soup its distinctive tang is made 4-5 days in advance. The other key ingredient is marjoram. Sometimes, I make a vegetarian version with dried mushrooms instead of the meat.
4. Mazurek cake
This is one of those desserts that requires a lot of effort, not because it’s complicated to make, but because of the decoration on top. It’s essentially a crust base covered with either caramel or almond paste decorated with nuts, dried fruit and/or bits of pastry. In my first cookbook, Polska, I do a salted caramel version with pecan on top, but in Poland people can get really creative with the decorations, to make their cakes stand out and feel celebratory.
5. Salatka jarzynowa
This is the quintessential East European salad that goes by many names – Russian salad, Salad Olivier or, as we’ve always called it in my family, sałatka jarzynowa, meaning simply vegetable salad. While you’ll find it at most Polish celebrations, the inclusion of eggs and mayonnaise means it’s especially appropriate during Easter. There are many variations, but usually it contains cooked carrots, parsnips, potatoes, leeks, gherkins and hard-boiled eggs, all chopped very finely. It can often also contain peas, although my current favourite recipe is my grandma’s original, which calls for beans instead.
Cheesecake is said to have originated in Eastern Europe — this doesn’t surprise me, as curd cheese, or twaróg, is one of the region’s key ingredients. When I was travelling in the Baltic States, it seemed as though each café had its own variety of it – pistachio, pumpkin, meringue, poppyseed. My mum has recently started making a beautiful, steamed halva cheesecake. And while it’s a dish eaten year-round in Poland, there’s certainly no Easter celebration without it.
Making pate is quite a laborious process, but if I’m going to make it any time, it will be Easter. Pates are eaten all over Poland, using meats that are popular in each region. In the north, near the Baltic Sea, fish pates are popular. In Silesia in the south-west, a rabbit pate might be on the table, whereas in the Mazowsze area in central Poland where I come from it’s most likely to be pork. I like to add prunes to mine, which is how my uncle Kazik taught me to make it.
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