I made Paska, Slovak Easter bread, yesterday. It’s a slightly sweet bread, formed in a ring, with a cheese dough wrapped in a white dough. I first had it as a kid when my grandmother made it. We often spent Easters with Granny. I got the idea to make it this year from my dad and Joyce, who were likely talking about their Easter traditions. I bet Dad, like me, thinks first and foremost of all the delicious food associated with holidays, and when he described Paska, the plan to bake their own was born. This resulted in a flurry of emails and texts to folks who might have the recipe, me included. I’m certain there’s a copy of it somewhere in my father’s house, but I like that he reached out to his sister, his daughter, and his son for the recipe.
My aunt and cousin came through first, having just made some the day before, and Dad forwarded me their recipe. Learning that everyone else was making it made me want to make it too.
It’s a confusing recipe, due to its age and the dramatic if vague flair with which my relations have recorded recipes over the years.
First, the recipe calls for dry cottage cheese. A little Googling reveals lots of information about “dry curd cottage cheese,” including that your local grocery store is unlikely to have it. I’ve made this bread before, but it has been years, so all I had was a fuzzy memory of regular cottage cheese, cheesecloth, and a metal sieve. I fiddled around with those items for a while and aside from making a mess, I also managed to come up with a pile of dry cheese curds—for the win.
This ingredients list also involves boiled milk, melted butter, and, per my aunt’s version of the recipe, some pretty stern commentary on the subject of yeast. There are two types of dough involved (basic and cheese), and one calls for “1 small package fresh yeast or 1/2 household” and the other for “1 cake of yeast (not household).” I’m not an expert bread maker, but I can assure you that these days at the grocery store you will only find yeast called “active dry” or “fast-rising instant,” or even “rapid-rise.” No “household” yeast or “cake yeast,” which is not yeast for cakes, but yeast formed into cakes, or blocks, because it isn’t so dry as the yeast in those funny little packages of three we can so easily procure. Yeah, you can order yeast cakes on the internet, but when you decide today that you want Paska tomorrow, you have to punt. My aunt said to use “active dry” for both and it’s fine. I didn’t have enough on hand so improvised with “instant” for both. Stern warnings, be damned.
The “directions” part of the recipe felt a little like the pared down tasks Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood give to the contestants on The Great British Baking Show for the technical challenges: bits left out, vague commentary, and ominous warnings: “4 Cups flour (DO NOT add all four, make sticky).” I’ve made enough bread to know what this is getting at, but the pushiness of it reminded me of my grandmother. I imagined Granny up on her toes (she was 4 foot and a little in height), hand on hip, peering around my shoulder as I added flour, her voice rising as she said, “no no no! Not all of it! Not all of it!” And then laughing, laughing, laughing.
These curiosities in the directions on my aunt’s recipe led me to pull out my own copy (from my mother), which was more or less the same but not quite. Both copies were word-processed, and my mother’s was in ALL CAPS. My aunt’s bears the title “Easter Paska,” but Mom’s reads “EASTER BREAD.” I liked thinking of my mother typing this into her recipe files, making edits to suit her approach to preparing food. My mother definitely cooked in ALL CAPS.
One conspicuous difference is that my mother listed the cheese dough first, while my aunt’s listed the basic dough first. With no indication of which would be better to start with, I opted for my aunt’s, largely because my cheese curds were still draining. My mom had the same puzzling yeast details and the same injunction about the flour, though worded slightly differently: “DON’T USE ALL FLOUR MAKE DOUGH STICKIE.” And to complicate matters further, my copy of my mother’s version had edits written in pen by me, and they were pretty substantive changes—like 1/4 cup of milk and 1/4 cup of water instead of 1/2 cup of milk. Why? Who knows?!
So preparing the two doughs took some mental gymnastics about quantities and the order-of-operations, especially in an effort to avoid using every bowl in my house. My questions about both versions of the recipe caused me to wonder what my brother’s version looked like, so I had Dad send it along. Frank had recorded the recipe in his meticulous handwriting on an index card (basic dough first). Interestingly, both doughs on his version of the recipe called for “1 cake yeast,” further complicating (or maybe simplifying?) the confounding yeast situation. His directions were more or less the same (his amounts matched both typed-up versions, not my handwritten changes), and I foged head-long through them all (was I cooking in ALL CAPS too?). When left to proof, my basic dough rose like mad, while the cheese dough took its sweet time, making me think my mother was onto something making the cheese dough first.
And then it came time to assemble the bread. I knew it had to be baked in a tube pan, but my aunt’s directions and my mother’s directions for getting the two doughs commingled and into the pan were vastly different. My aunt’s had me pulling the basic dough into a rectangle upon which I would place the cheese dough, but my mother’s said, “ROLL BREAD DOUGH LIKE YOU WOULD FOR A PIE (1/4 OF AN INCH THICK). PLACE CHEESE DOUGH ON BREAD DOUGH LEAVING OUTER EDGE AND MIDDLE CLEAR. MAKE A HOLE WITH YOUR HAND IN THE MIDDLE OF THE BREAD DOUGH. PULL BREAD DOUGH FROM CENTER AND OUTER EDGE UP OER CHEESE DOUGH.” This seemed way more fun than the rectangle method, so I opted for it. My brother’s directions were closer to my mother’s, with a little more clarity about the size of the circle of dough (“a 10” circle”) and the instruction to “punch a small hole in the center.” His also explained making the cheese dough into a ring, which confirmed my interpretation of “PLACE CHEESE DOUGH ON BREAD DOUGH LEAVING OUTER EDGE AND MIDDLE CLEAR.”
After one more rise it was time to bake. All instructions said 45 minutes, but they also all said that this recipe would yield 2 loaves. Well, no. My brother’s said “makes 2 loaves” at the end of his notecard. The other two just said to use half the dough for assembling the ring, leaving me to infer that I would repeat the steps with the other half of the dough. Regardless, I only have one tube pan, and I have zero memories of making two loaves. I checked in with my dad and Joyce for the umpteenth time during this process, and they relayed my brother’s take that you could make two short loaves or one taller loaf. Bingo. One loaf for me. But this would increase the baking time, and unlike all the recipes on the King Arthur Flour website, there was no indication of what “done” would look like. I’ve never been good at the knock-on-it-to-to-see-if-it-sounds-hollow method, so I went with the 200-degrees-for-bread-made-with-milk-or-butter rule (thanks, K.A.) and called it good.
And good it was. We sliced into it on this Easter morning. Though I haven’t eaten Paska in years, I knew my loaf—a little dense, with the pale yellow cheese dough framed by the white basic dough, the firm crust, the slightly sweet taste—fit comfortably within family tradition.
As I thought more about the three versions of this recipe I consulted, I realized that when they were recorded—by my aunt, my mother, my brother—each of them was most likely talking with my grandmother. I was probably talking to her, too, when I made the changes in pen on my copy. That would explain all the fiddly differences. I imagined my mother on the phone with Granny, typing in the sentences as Granny rattled off the directions from her recipe, no doubt adding lots of do’s and don’ts (“Don’t add all the flour! Make the dough sticky!”). My aunt’s copy was perhaps typed up from her own hand-written version (no email back in those days for file sharing), likely penned at my grandmother’s kitchen table. And I’m almost certain my brother sat with Granny and wrote his version down. I can hear him asking her for a little more precision: “How big a circle should I roll the basic dough?” And she probably said, “oh, about yea-big,” making a ring with her hands. That looks about 10 inches, he decided. Or maybe he wasn’t at her table. Maybe they were on the phone, too, and Granny said, “about the size of a dinner plate.” Hers were Corelle, the “butterfly gold” pattern. I have some Corelle plates too, and I just measured one: exactly 10 inches.
Through the process of making my Easter Paska, I heard in one way or another from my dad and Joyce, my aunt, my brother, and even my mother and my grandmother. None of us lives in the same place—my Dad’s in Indiana, my aunt’s in Pennsylvania, my brother’s in Chicago, and Granny and Mom are in the great beyond. But I distinctly heard all their voices as I worked. And sampling the sweet bread, spread with butter and accompanied by a cup of tea, makes me think of us all together, a pleasant sensation on this Easter morning. Thanks for the help, everyone. I think it’s time for me to write down my own version of this recipe, so I can add my voice, too.