Easter Paska (Traditional Egg Bread)
Why I Love This Recipe
The midnight church service on the Saturday night before Easter Day was long ~ 4 hours long ~ but then we would return to grandma and grandpa's house, still in darkness, with our blessed basket and eat its contents for breakfast before the day's activities and feasting began.
There was smoked side bacon crusted with sweet paprika and tender young scallions, their white tips mild and perfect for dipping into a small crystal bowl filled with salt. There were hard-boiled eggs, their shells dyed a deep blood-red, ready to be cracked end-to-end in friendly competition before being peeled and eaten. And then there was the centrepiece: great-grandma Eva's Paska. Rich, lightly sweet, its interior glowing golden thanks to the butter and eggs that went into its dough, our celebration bread had a glossy brown crust adorned with a braided cross and rosettes; at the table it was sliced and slathered with fresh butter.
The recipe looks complicated but it's really not. The dough is extremely elastic and forgiving, and once you make the decorative top for the first time, you'll see that it's actually quite easy.
Ingredients You'll Need
1-1/2 cups whole (3.25%) milk
1 tbsp granulated sugar
1-1/2 tbsp active dry yeast
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1/4 cup canola, grapeseed, or other neutral-flavoured oil
2 large eggs
2 egg yolks from large eggs
5 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 tbsp salt
1 cup raisins (optional)
1 egg yolk mixed with 1 tbsp milk
1. In a medium saucepan, warm the milk to about 105ºF (do not boil). Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the tablespoon of granulated sugar and the yeast. Let proof until the mixture has doubled in volume, about 10 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, melt the butter over low heat, skimming off the white milk solids that rise to the surface. Stir in the oil; set aside.
3. In a small bowl, whisk together the eggs and egg yolks. Temper the eggs by whisking 1/2 cup of the milk-and-yeast mixture into the eggs. Whisk the egg-and-milk mixture into the saucepan with the remaining milk-and-yeast mixture.
4. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, 1/3-cup sugar, and the salt until well combined. Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients. Into the well, pour the milk-and-egg mixture and half of the butter-and-oil mixture.
5. Stir with a wooden spoon until the dough begins to hold together and pull away from the sides of the bowl. If the dough is too dry, dribble in small amounts of the butter-and-oil mixture, as necessary. Stir in the raisins, if using.
6. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Knead the dough, dusting with additional flour if needed, until the dough is smooth, elastic, and no longer sticky, about 5 minutes. Transfer the dough to a large, lightly greased bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and a tea towel; set in a warm area away from drafts until doubled in size, about 2 hours.
7. Prepare the pans: Lightly grease two 8- x 4- x 2-1/2-inch loaf pans (alternately, use two 6-inch diameter, high-sided round pans). Cut a piece of parchment to fit into the bottom of each pan; lightly grease the top of the parchment paper.
8. Punch down the dough and turn it out onto a lightly floured work surface, kneading it a few times. Cut the dough in half and form it into 2 balls; cover one of the balls with a tea towel; set aside.
9. Shape the first loaf: Cut away one-third of the ball (which will be used to create the decorative top); set aside. Shape the remaining two-thirds of the ball to fit the loaf pan and press it into the bottom of the pan. Divide the remaining one-third of the dough into eight pieces. With your palms, roll each of the 4 pieces into long ropes about 12 inches long and 1 inch in diameter, working from the centre outwards. Twist two of the ropes together three times in the middle and lay them lengthwise over the centre of the dough in the loaf pan, curling each of the four ends outwards towards the pan’s corners. Twist the remaining two ropes together three times in the middle and lay them width-wise over the centre of the dough in the loaf pan to create a cross, again curling each of the four ends outwards.
10. Roll each of the remaining four pieces of dough into ropes. Using the heel of your palm, flatten each rope to about 1/4 inch. Using a paring knife and keeping the top edge intact, cut about 30 slits in each rope, along the length of the flattened ropes so that each looks like a fringe. Roll up each rope from one long side to the other (the intact end remains at the top and the fringed edge remains at the bottom). When rolled the fringed edge creates a flower. Place one flower, fringe end up, in each of the four quadrants created by the cross atop the loaf. Repeat the shaping and decorating process with the second ball of dough in the second loaf pan.
11. Cover both loaf pans with plastic wrap and a tea towel; set in a warm area away from drafts until doubled in size, approximately 1 hour. Uncover the loaves and generously brush the tops with the egg yolk-and-milk mixture. Place the loaves in a preheated 350º F oven. Bake for 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to 325º F and bake until the bread is a glossy dark brown and sounds hollow when removed from the pan and gently tapped on the bottom, about 45 minutes.