The Easter Cakes

Source:”Old Polish Traditions in the Kitchen and at the Table”
by Maria Lemnis i Henryk Vitry.
Prep. Urszula Wystepek

Easter, the most important Christian holiday, became the greatest culinary holiday in older Poland. When we read descriptions of Old Polish Easter feasts – not the ones given by the magnates in their manors, but the more modest ones in noblemen’s and burgher homes and even in peasant cottages – we get the impression that the religious, or spiritual side of this holiday was pushed into the background in favor of the earthly pleasures of the palate. On the magnates and noblemen’s estates the magnificently laid Easter table was blessed by a parish-priest or chaplain. During Holy Week the greatest activity took place in the kitchen, from which drifted delicious smells of food being prepared for the holiday. They aroused the appetite of fasting household members who were waiting impatiently for Easter, which meant the end of Lent and the beginning of the Easter culinary battle.

The delicacies blessed by the priest were placed on a big table in the dining room. They consisted of hams, kielbasas, brawn, fish in aspic, a pig baked whole and Easter cakes: mazureks, layer cakes and the famous Old Polish babas. Of course, vodkas, mead, beer and wine were not forgotten. An Easter lamb formed from butter or sugar was placed in the middle. The whole table, full of color and tempting with delicious smells, was decorated with green myrtle branches and colored eggs. These Easter tables were modest sometimes and stunningly rich at other times, dependeding on the wealth of the house.

For example, the apprentices in towns, hungry after a long lasting and strictly observed Lent, awaited the relatively modest meal at their master’s with great longing. This can be seen in the surviving verses of songs sung by apprentices on Palm Sunday. In these passages we sense not only a religious mood, but also a sharpened, impatient young appetite. Here are two samples of these somewhat audacious, but charmingly honest songs:

Layer cakes
And stuffed kielbasas are good
Let me, Christ, taste this
Let me see these Easter delicacies
I shall praise you that you are good, Lord,
When I eat some ham for breakfast.

Even the most modest Easter feast was begun with the sharing of a blessed hard-boiled egg, which was accompanied by an exchange of greetings. Right after this, everyone sat down to the table, which was a prototype of today’s cold buffet in its arrangement of dishes. The Easter cakes – babas and mazureks – deserve special mention. Layer cakes are a relatively late acquisition and the fashion for them came doubtless from Italy, thanks to Queen Bona. Babas and mazureks are characteristic of Old Polish cooking, as they are genuinely Polish delicacies.

The baking of Easter babas was an exciting event and could be called a kind of magic art. The cook, the lady of the house and all the women of the household locked themselves in the kitchen. Men were forbidden to enter. The whitest wheat flour was sifted through a fine sieve, hundreds (!) of egg yolks were beaten with sugar in bowls, saffron was dissolved in vodka (it not only colored the cake beautifully, but gave it a spicy aroma as well), almonds were ground, raisins were sorted, fragrant vanilla was ground in mortars and yeast was dissolved. The dough was put into baba moulds and covered with linen cloths, since a „cold” baba did not grow and could not be baked thoroughly. Therefore, the kitchen windows and doors were made air tight to avoid draughts. The risen babas were carefully placed in the baking oven. Finally, when they were taken out of the hot oven on a wooden spade, frequently there were dramatic cries and tears: a baba that was too brown or had collapsed meant loss of face. When the babas were taken out, they were carefully placed on an eiderdown so that they would not be crushed when cooling. Everyone spoke in whispers since any noise could also harm the delicate cake. The cooked babas were beautifully and liberally iced. The most famous and delicate were the „feather” and „muslin” babas.

The origin of mazureks has not been sufficiently explained yet. It is possible that they were influenced by the sweet cuisine of the Turks. Mazureks are flat cakes, usually on a pastry or on a wafer, covered with a paste of nuts, almonds, cheese, or nuts with raisins etc., colorfully iced and decorated with jam, nuts and raisins. Good cooks often had several recipes for mazureks.

Muslin Baba

Break 24 egg yolks into an enamelled dish, adding 12 oz. sugar. Place dish with egg yolks into a larger dish with hot water and beat with an eggbeater until thick and light in color. Then add yeast (crumble 2 oz. yeast in 1/2 cup lukewarm milk, add 1- tablespoon flour and 1 teaspoon sugar, mix and wait until it rises, then add the yeast to the beaten egg yolks), 1-tablespoon vanilla ground to a powder and 10 oz. sifted and lightly warmed wheat flour. Beat the dough for 30 minutes, then add 4 oz. melted lukewarm butter and beat again for 30 minutes. When the dough doubles in bulk (in a warm place), transfer it to a buttered, lightly warmed baba pan. When the dough rises to the edges in the pan, place it in a well-heated oven, taking care to avoid any sudden jolts. In a medium-hot oven the baking time is 60-70 minutes. The muslin baba, when successfully baked, is a cake of the highest rank.

Date Mazurek

Beat 6-7 egg whites until stiff, adding 20 oz. castor sugar in tablespoonfuls while beating. The egg whites should be so stiff and shiny that they can be cut with a knife. This takes 30 minutes by hand in a bowl (10 minutes with an electric beater at high speed). After this, add 10 oz. thinly sliced dates (without pits!), 10 oz. finely chopped blanched almonds, and 10 oz. grated semi-sweet chocolate, without beating. After mixing these ingredients lightly, place the mazurek paste finger-thick on wafers and bake in a moderately hot oven, so that the mazureks dry rather than bake. After the baking and thorough cooling, trim the edges with a sharp knife, then cover with an icing made of sugar and water with pineapple essence or from sugar blended with orange liqueur (or orange vodka). From these proportions we get two mazureks.

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