One Paskha, when I was about 18, my mom got sick. Her blood pressure was out of control and during holy week, she was hospitalized. She had some tests done and would come through this crisis relatively quickly, but not quickly enough to tend to the preparation of our traditional Easter basket of food. As the oldest girl in the family, the task fell unexpectedly to me. I was totally unprepared. I had seen my mom do this a dozen times, yet when I had to do it myself, well...it's just not the same. I felt a knot in the pit of my stomach as my father stood behind me in the kitchen on Holy Thursday morning, my younger sisters by my side. He was just shaking his head; his lack of confidence was all too clear. "Just do what you can", he said.
When I became a mom, I loved the thought of passing the traditions of our Carpatho-Rusyn heritage along to my children and have always approached the preparation of the Paskha basket as a family event. This year will be no different...and I just can't wait.
The crowning glory of every Paskha basket is the Paskha bread. When my children were little, we would prepare the dough together and then, in order to give Mommy some time to craft the braids which would adorn our loaves of bread, each child got his own lump of dough and an empty washed-out tuna can in which to pan and bake his very own little Paskha. Some were big, some were small, some had braids, some had....something else?...on top. Each was unique and perfect and the proud creation of my little bakers, who would proudly carry it, in its own little basket, to be blessed on Holy Saturday!
Horseradish root is a favorite accompaniment for our Paskha bread on Easter morning, and although you can buy it ready-made, the preparation of it is a tradition we would not miss. When I was a little girl, my grandpa would go outside onto the back porch with a peeled horseradish root and a box grater, then all of us children would line up by the back door to watch the show. Oh the dramatics and tears as he would grate and grate that root into a paste! We would giggle and giggle until he called us out to help! When he was finished, my grandmother would mix it with some vinegar and maybe a little red beet to lessen the bite. As my husband has similar childhood memories, he has insisted that we grate the horseradish by hand in our house, and it has become a rite of passage among our sons. Lots of giggling and teary eyes!
As we also look forward to some real butter on that bread after the long Fast, we prepare that for our basket as well. Traditionally, it is shaped into the form of a Paschal lamb, and many family members use molds to achieve that. My mom, however is very creative and came up with a way to carve one from sticks of butter and cover him with "shredded" butter wool. The children give him eyes made of cloves and a little red pepper tongue...too cute.
Once again, in order to properly feast after the long Fast, an egg cheese known as hrutka is included in the basket. I have seen as many renditions of this food as there are families, and it appears that, although they are similar, no two are alike. My own family doesn't at all care for the style that is traditional to both sides of my family, so I've tried a few variations....still a work in progress, I suppose, but it will be in the basket! (Maybe this year they will like it!)
The meat eaters in my family look so forward to the brined and smoked ham, glazed with bourbon and brown sugar and garnished with cloves and pineapple. Homemade kolbassi, from an old family recipe will also be enjoyed. If you want to have some family fun, making kolbassi together beats a spirited game of twister any day! "Who's got the casings?" "Turn the grinder slower!" "Hold up; its a blow-out!!!"
Hard-boiled eggs, scallions or other greens, and a container of salt are nestled into our basket as well. The salt will be blessed, along with the other foods, and used throughout the year in our cooking, especially during periods of stress and strife when my mother's intuition ( aka: my dear sweet angel guardian!) tells me that we are in need of some extra blessings...especially known around here to be found in an apple crisp! ;)
Once our basket is filled, we place a blessed candle in it, to be lit during the blessing, and cover it for transport to the church. The children would place their little tuna-can paskhas, each lovingly into its very own little basket, covering it with its own hand-decorated cover. These were made during Holy Week from white men's handkerchiefs adorned with fabric marker crosses and flowers and a big, beautiful " Christos Voskrese!" written lovingly on it. The children were always so proud! As for our big basket, not just any covering will do! In our house, one of my most cherished items is a basket-cover appliquéd and embroidered by my grandmother. She made one for each of my sisters before she passed away, and it is a wonderful way to remember her. I plan to make one for my own children someday, when they begin to make Paskha baskets for their own families.
Now, my children are all young adults in their teens and twenties and remember well the crafting of all those Paskha baskets, not too long ago when they were little. Someday, not too long from now, they will probably have their own little ones and will share the joy of preparing for the Feast together with them. For now, my oldest daughter will make the Paskha, my sons will grate the horseradish on our back porch while the twins giggle at them through the window, and the tradition will continue.