Setting the Table
Paska bread, also known as Easter cake, is bread that is rich in butter, eggs, and a variety of spices. It is known for its tall cylindrical shape, with doughy decorations, sprinkles, and glaze on the top that all hold a symbolic meaning. Paska bread originated in Ukraine, before Christianity by those of Orthodox Christianity. This bread is traditionally made for what many know as Easter, but is also called the ‘Great Day’, or Velykden (Tradition of Paska- Ukrainian Easter Bread). Traditionally, paska is cooked by the mother in the home, who is under a lot of pressure as it was said to be a very important task. How well the bread turns foreshadows what the following year will bring for the family. The following morning, the bread is brought to the Easter service to be blessed, and then brought home with the family for them to enjoy (Ukrainian Easter Customs and Traditions).
I chose this dish because I think that baking a cake like bread will be delicious, and its significance to Orthodox Christianity is extremely interesting. There are many regulations that go along with baking the paska, and I am up for the challenge of trying to follow them. I also am interested in baking bread, as I have never done it before. With my lack of experience, I am anticipating a few problems along the way. The recipe I looked at calls for six hours of preparation, and thirty-five minutes of baking (Paska Easter Bread Recipe (Kulich). This large amount of time and preparation may be a problem, and cooking this in a shared kitchen in the dorms could be interesting. The recipe also calls for paper molds, which is something new that I am excited to try as well.
Paska bread has shown to have religious significance in many ways. It is made and eaten in celebration of the ‘Great Day’, or Easter in Ukraine, and it also holds many symbolic meanings. Some families cook three different cakes, each with their own significance. The Yellow cake stands for the sun and the sky, in hopes that they will grant the family health and a long life. The White cake is for the deceased, and to take away misfortune and death from the family. Third, the Black cake stands for the living people of the land (Tradition of Paska). Paska does not only have meaning to Orthodox Christianity. Many other religions make this with different symbolic meanings through its decorations. Some of these include the cross, solar signs, and even birds and bees (Sibirtseva). In relation to Emile Durkheim and his definition of religion, paska relates through the strict practice that people follow to bake it, and its ties to the Easter holiday. The cook must think pure thoughts, and bake it just right as it can foretell the future for the family. The bread is also considered sacred after is has been blessed during the service, and the community of Orthodox Christianity strictly follows the traditions that come with the paska.
The process of turning multiple ingredients into a beautifully decorated paska bread is quite complex and takes a large amount of time and effort. In order to make paska, many ingredients are needed including yeast, flour, butter, along with glaze decoration on the top. Each ingredient has a special connection to religion, even if it may not be with Orthodox Christianity. Paska bread is a Ukrainian Easter tradition, celebrated by those of Orthodox Christianity. It requires lots of time and various different practices throughout the process of its creation.
Yeast is an important ingredient in paska and is classified in the kingdom of Fungi. Some of its most common uses are in breads, baked goods, and alcohol. The single-celled microorganism exists all around in the air, soil, and on plants. Yeast was first used in bread making in ancient times, beginning in Egypt where drawings were found of bakeries and baking chambers over 4,000 years old (History of Yeast). During this time, wheat was the most common grain used, but bakers tried multiple different grains to test out new flavors. They also experimented with many other ingredients such as honey, eggs, and seeds to create a variety of choices. Even then, there were traditions with bread and special shapes with symbolic meaning. The scientific study of bread and how yeast works began in 1676 when the first microscope was invented and finally in 1859, Louis Pasteur discovered the process of how yeast works to make bread rise. Yeast produces carbon dioxide feeding off of starches in flour, and the carbon dioxide causes the gluten in flour to expand. This then leads to the rising of the dough (History of Yeast).
The rising of yeast is a slow process and takes time. This forms a connection to the Jewish Passover, or “holiday of unleavened bread”. When the Israelites escaped from Egypt, the bread did not have time to rise while they ran. This import Jewish holiday is formally called the Passover, where the freedom from slavery in Egypt is celebrated (Greenberg). The production of yeast and how it is taken from a plant, then turned into an essential ingredient in bread relates to environmental justice. Environmental justice can relate to social issues, but it can also relate to nature and how it is used. One tiny yeast cell produces a large amount of yeast, and this efficient way of using nature brings justice to the table. The way in which yeast is available for all to purchase at the store makes it just as well. Things like race, color, national origin, gender, and income cannot influence one’s ability to get yeast to make paska bread, baked goods, or whatever they desire.
Flour is another important ingredient in the production of paska, and the significance of bread in many religions also makes flour significant. The symbolic bread named Matzah mainly consists of flour, and plays a part in the previously mentioned celebration, the “holiday of unleavened bread” amongst the Jewish people (Greenberg). Paska calls specifically for Canadian flour, which is said to be the first and greatest success story of Canada. This extremely fine flour works “effortlessly” for recipes of all kinds and is considered all-purpose to Canadians. Bakers in Canada only use this flour, without feeling the need to experiment with any others. In comparison to American flour, Canadian flour is higher in protein which allows the bread to rise better (Flour). Also, Canadian flour is more expensive, and is harder to get in the United States. The use of Canadian flour can relate to environmental and social justice. The origin of the different ingredients and the cultures they come from influence an individual’s ability to be able to buy and use the ingredients.
The paska recipe also calls for butter, an extremely symbolic food to many religions. Elain Khosrova wrote a book about the symbolism of the simple product that many people use with foods every day. Buddhists used butter in their rituals by building extravagant sculptures as thankfulness towards their gods. Tibetan monks went through hardship to build these intricate sculptures for many months. Another interesting idea behind the butter used in paska, is the significance of how it is produced. Buddhists also see the dairy products that make up butter, as “rungs on a spiritual ladder” (Khosrova). The way that Buddhist people relate a product as simple as butter to their religion definitely demonstrates religious freedom. By building sculptures the people express their thanks and beliefs publicly and freely allowing others to hear about them.
The main ingredients in paska can be tied to other religions, but the bread itself is symbolic to Orthodox Christianity. In celebration of Easter, Ukrainians make this sweet bread with symbolism to their faith, as well as their family and the upcoming year. The families often baked three different breads to account for different parts of their life. The Yellow Paska represented the sun and sky, where the family members can get health to live a long life. The White Paska stands for the deceased, and asking them not to bring misfortune upon the family. The Black Paska symbolizes the living people and the land they live on. There is also symbolism that comes with the production of the paska itself. The cook must think pure thoughts while she is making the bread, and the house should be completely calm and still while the paska is made. The family must wait to eat the paska until it has been blessed at the Easter service (Tradition of Paska- Ukrainian Easter Bread).
The way that Orthodox Christianity uses this symbolism of paska reflects religious freedom in their lives. The practice of baking the bread with complete calmness, and then bringing it to church to become sacred demonstrates this idea. A large community of people practice this idea in Ukraine, making it a very important part of Orthodox Christianity. Social Justice is shown through the different ways that paska is related to their lives. The cook must think pure thoughts, if the bread is burnt or cracks a family member may die in the next year, and the paska must be blessed to eat it. These circumstances influence the social components of the lives dealing with opportunities and misfortunes that may be in the families’ future. In this same way, well being can be related to the sacred paska. Eating a well baked paska was said to bring you peace and keep bad things from an individual. When considering nutrition of the dish, it is not extremely unhealthy unless a large amount is consumed. Only baking it and eating it once a year show moderation that would not make it unhealthy. The production and consumption of blessed paska bread on Easter is extremely important to Orthodox Christianity, and the religious meanings behind each ingredient makes the dish even more significant.
Baking paska bread with my mom was definitely a fun experience. I learned a lot about cooking with yeast and baking bread in general. Even though in the end the bread did not look the best, it still tasted great. I learned about many components to baking bread throughout this process and also enjoyed the time spent with my mom.
The process began by measuring and mixing the ingredients for the dough in the mixer as shown. The recipe called for lukewarm water, whole milk, one egg, flour, yeast, butter, sugar, and salt. It then explained a few different ways in which you could mix the ingredients, and I chose to use my mom’s mixer. The Kitchen Aid mixer was very efficient and a lot less work than mixing by hand.
The next step was to knead the dough by hand and then leave it to sit and rise. This is where I ran into my first problem. The dough did not rise as the recipe said it should, so my mom and I decided to knead the dough a little more with hopes that it would rise. After another forty-five minutes the dough had only slightly risen, and remained as a pile in the pan but I decided to go forward regardless. The next step in the recipe I had chosen, stated that one should divide the dough and create a braided decoration for the top of the bread. This is the portion that is considered symbolic in Orthodox Christianity, and my mom and I thought my design could be symbolic to Christianity today. In my home, we used the three strands to symbolize the Trinity or the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. I attempted to create a beautiful braid to place around the paska, but the consistency of my dough was not the easiest to work with. The strands were very thick and did not turn out the best, as you can see in the photo.
Even though the bread was an unrisen heap of dough in a pan, I decided to bake it to see what the end product might be. Despite the look of the paska, it tasted delicious! The warm bread straight out of the oven had a very strong flavor that tasted like bread straight from a bakery. It was warm, dense, and had a strong dough flavor which paired well with the butter we chose to serve it with. The flavor of the paska was not like other breads I have eaten; the dough was much richer and had a thicker texture than a slice from a loaf. This texture difference could be related to the problem of unrisen dough, but personally I liked the overall taste and texture! In other recipes, some serve the paska with glaze and sprinkles as a dessert. Because we decided to eat it along with a meal rather than dessert, we decided to simply spread butter on it.
As the paska cooked in the oven, the smell of fresh bread flowed throughout my house reminding me of my grandmother’s home cooking. She was the best cook and always encouraged me to help her in the kitchen which made me more comfortable when baking the paska bread. This strong smell not only made me hungry, but also thankful for my home and the moments with my family members in it. Not often do we get to do things as a whole family, so it was fun to see my creation bring us together. Although the bread was served to my family simply by ripping it off and spreading on butter, I thought this reflected the mood of my family in a sense. We are very laid back and try not to take things too seriously. The kitchen is not the most formal, and making paska in it was a fun activity that taught me a lot through the process.
Paska bread is a famous tradition for Easter in Ukraine, but there are many reasons that individuals disagree with its production. By looking at the elements of well-being, social justice, environmental justice, and religious freedom I have found many possible problems in the production of paska.
Well-being can be described as a state of the ideal mental, physical, and emotional health in a person. Paska bread can be harmful to a person’s well-being in a few different ways. Because it is a cake-like bread, it is not an essential food to survive, and contains a large amount of carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are needed in a person’s diet, but in large amounts can cause a person to gain weight. As a concrete example of a problem with this bread, paska would be dangerous for those with celiac disease. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that causes an individual’s body to attack their small intestine when they have consumed gluten. This can lead to many problems over time, and nutrients are not able to be properly absorbed (Celiac Disease Foundation, 2019). A healthy eater or an individual with a gluten allergy or intolerance would not approve of eating paska bread.
Along with the health risk of paska bread, there are various other components that can influence a person’s well-being. The symbolism in Orthodox Christianity comes with serious superstitions while baking the bread. For example, if the bread is burnt or cracked it may mean a year full of misfortune for the family. This has the potential to impact many components of an individual's health well-being because of the many superstitions that come with it.
Social justice is the equality in a society in terms of money and experiences. The task of making paska is quite complex, and an individual must own a lot of supplies. They must have the ingredients, various cooking utensils, and an oven. Only privileged people with a kitchen and all the utensils it takes, can make this Easter cake well. Baking paska also takes an entire afternoon to make because of the time it takes to mix the dough, allow it to rise, and finally put it in the oven to bake. Every person may not have the time or money to experience this, which is not just in society.
Environmental justice can be related to the treatment of the earth as well as the people that inhabit it. In the production of yeast, paska is essential for the bread to rise and the use of yeast could be wrong for various reasons. Yeast is a single-celled fungus that is egg shaped, and through its fermentation it causes bread dough to rise. It feeds off of sugars such as sucrose, fructose, and glucose for energy to grow (What is Yeast?, 2014). Personally, I did not have the best experience using yeast. My paska did not rise well, and remained as a pile of dough in the pan. I did not use the yeast properly or efficiently which was a wasteful way to use this living organism from the environment.
The production of paska bread is for Easter in Ukraine, but other religions have reasoning as to why eating paska is wrong. In Jainism, nonviolence is the way of life and eating anything that is or was alive is prohibited. This includes all animals, vegetables with a root, mushrooms, fungus, and yeasts. Yeast is said to grow in an unhygienic environment and has the potential for life in a different form, therefore eating it is wrong (Greenberg, 2017). Jains also cannot eat eggs, as they are an offspring of a living creature. Yeast and eggs are both necessities in the making of paska, therefore Jains would not eat it.
In Orthodox Christianity, before the bread is eaten it must be blessed. Many people do not attend church on a regular basis where they could have their bread blessed. Orthodox Christians would consider it wrong to eat the bread before it has been blessed because the cook was not even allowed taste her final product. This concept is not welcoming to those of another faith or those who simply do not attend church.
The Orthodox Christianity tradition in Ukraine of making paska bread is symbolic and the bread is delicious, but there are many problems in its production. Before making this bread, it is essential to look at the different elements that surround the dish.
I chose to research and make paska bread because of how delicious the dish looked and the challenge that came with making the dish. In Orthodox Christianity, there are specific rules and regulations one must follow, and my goal was to do just that. Sadly, I did not succeed. I did not have the bread blessed, and my paska did not rise as it was supposed to. But through this experience I learned many things about the underlying meaning of paska in religion, while also improving my baking skills.
Throughout my research and experience with paska bread, I learned a lot about the underlying symbolism that something as simple as bread can hold. In Orthodox Christianity, the production of paska bread includes strict rules to follow and each ingredient holds an underlying meaning. These strict steps relate to its religious meaning, as well as the decorations of an individual’s choice. I was able to relate this to my own religion with a three-strand braid that represented the Trinity. The length of time it takes to make the bread was also religious as previously explained, and I noticed this as it almost took me an entire day to make. I found this research interesting, and it makes me think more about the foods I eat every day. Bread is a common food that I often consume, and I now view it in a different manner because of the length of time it takes to make, the ingredients in it, and the symbolism paska holds for various reasons. These same characteristics can relate to any food we eat. Whether it be bread, pasta, or cookies they each may hold a deeper meaning with a connection to an individual’s spiritual life.
Celiac Disease Foundation. (2019) What is Celiac Disease? Retrieved from https://celiac.org/about-celiac-disease/what-is-celiac-disease/
“Flour.” Cooks Information, 2004. https://www.cooksinfo.com/flour
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Greenberg, Yudit. The Body in Religion. Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.
Khosrova, Elain. Butter: A Rich History. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, November 2016.
“Paska Easter Bread Recipe (Kulich).” Natasha’s Kitchen, 23 March 2013, https://natashaskitchen.com/paska-easter-bread-recipe-kulich/
Sibirtseva, Maria. “How Do Ukrainians Celebrate Easter?” Culture Trip, 4 April 2018, https://theculturetrip.com/europe/ukraine/articles/how-do-ukrainians-celebrate-easter/
“Tradition of Paska- Ukrainian Easter Bread.” Sova Books, 2013, https://sovabooks.com.au/tradition-of-paska-ukrainian-easter-bread/
“Ukrainian Easter Customs and Traditions.” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, 20 April 2014, https://mfa.gov.ua/en/press-center/news/21903-ukrainian-easter-customs-and-traditions
What is Yeast? (2014) Retrieved from https://redstaryeast.com/science-yeast/what-is-yeast/
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