Our family background is a bit of a mixed bag – my father’s family is mostly Irish, but with a good dose of Danish and English in the mix. My mum’s family, on other hand, is 100% Polish. While people see the hair and name and guess the Irish bit right away, the other countries are less obvious.
Add to that the fact that we’ve been America for multiple generations on each side – what you get is a family that doesn’t have too many “ethnic” traditions left. Lots and lots of wonderful family traditions – reading the Night Before Christmas on Christmas Eve, homemade cranberry sauce and boiled onions at Thanksgiving – but not really traditions that you could claim are part of a sort of pride in our heritage.
Except for Easter.
Oh, it’s changed a bit throughout the years – some American bits have been added and some of the hardcore ethnic bits taken away – but at the end of the day I’d still say that we have a very Polish Easter. Or should I say the beginning of the day, because the tradition revolves around not Easter dinner, but Easter breakfast.
In Polish this is called Swiecone and the idea is that after church the family rushes home to eat all of the dishes denied to them during Lent. This can be an extremely elaborate spread with several courses, including soups, breads, meat and eggs. While our family doesn’t hew strictly to all of these traditions, there are several items that it just wouldn’t be Easter without.
The first of these is prepared horseradish – grated horseradish root, mixed with a bit of vinegar. Although the kind mixed with beet juice is traditional in Poland, we prefer the white, as it’s more pungent.
If you’ve never eaten horseradish, let’s just say that it can be an acquired taste. Related to wasabi, mustard, and cabbage, it’s full of volatile oils that give it a spiciness that you feel right behind your nose. I love it paired with the next two foods we eat:
These, of course, are part of most Easter traditions, but we smash them against each other in “egg fights” to open them. If your egg doesn’t crack, you win, but you also can’t eat breakfast.
This salty, fatty, and utterly delicious sausage is a staple in Polish cuisine. My Nana always boiled hers, which makes me sad; in our house, it’s usually cut into small pieces or coins and pan-fried. Combine some bland egg, spicy horseradish, and salty kielbasa and my friends, you’ve got a sensational breakfast.
We usually also have a few other breakfast meats: ham, bacon, or other sorts of sausage, plenty of coffee and orange juice are also present. But the crown jewel of Easter breakfast, at least for me, has always been the babka. Babka is a yeast cake – more a very sweet bread than a traditional cake. When I was little, my Nana brought the babka to us, though where she got it I have no idea. Later, since I lived in the city I would head to either Brighton, which has a large Russian population, or Dorchester, the only bastion of Polishness in Boston, to obtain the treat. These were raisin-filled and rum-glazed, and I always enjoyed them. Yet for the past few years, the babka we’ve eaten have blown them out of the water, because my mother and sister have taken it upon themselves to bake them from scratch.
If you’ve ever made a yeast bread then you understand the enormity of this undertaking at a busy holiday time. Baked goods with yeast take time and patience. Yet the results are well worth the effort:
Filled with cream cheese and dried cranberries, topped with slivers of almond, I think you’ll agree this babka is a thing of beauty. My sister Kelly largely baked it herself this year, and for that I thank her! Click here for a similar recipe, and if you make it, let me know what you think! I guarantee, it will taste even better if you eat a few eggs liberally covered in horseradish first.