Easter is only a couple of weeks away and many are looking forward to their favourite seasonal treats. I grew up in a home where Hot Cross Buns were that treat! In my mid teens, my taste buds were exposed to a flavourful sweetbread called Paska. There are countless versions for both the loaves and the frostings that decorate the tops.
Through my teens and most of my twenties, I managed to get either a small loaf or at least a couple of slices from my Mennonite friends whose mothers and grandmothers made the delicious bread! Okay, I'll admit it - I occasionally had to make some not too subtle comments about how much I loved the bread but didn't get any at home so was wondering if any of my friends could share a little! Usually one or two would take pity on me and bring me a couple slices!
One year, I was even invited to a Paska decorating party! A friend and her sister baked two huge batches of Paska and invited several people over to help decorate them. There were a couple of different kinds of icings and at least a half dozen types of sprinkles and other decorating delights! We sat around the table talking and decorating to our hearts content - also knowing that we each got to take one mini loaf home!
My mom did try making Paska one year. I don't recall what recipe she used, but for some reason, it just didn't rise that well. It was also a bit dry and not as flavourful as what I had in the past. It was one of the few times that my mom's baking didn't turn out great. We did eat it all but she never made it again.
Well time moved on and many of my Mennonite connections faded. I hadn't had Paska in about 25 years, but I still thought about it every Easter. A couple months ago, I was talking with a Mennonite friend about some of the traditions and told her about the Paska party. I decided that this year, I would try and find a recipe and make it myself!
Typing "Paska" into any search engine will get you millions of results. Many of the recipes will call for 8-10 eggs for a 5 loaf recipe. That was more eggs than I wanted to use as I have a low tolerance for eggs. Most also called for using dry active yeast. I've never had much luck with proofing yeast so have been using rapid rise/instant yeast for well over 20 years!
I decided to focus on recipes that called for fewer eggs and figure out how to convert to using rapid rise yeast.
It didn't take me long to focus in on a recipe on the Mennonite Girls Can Cook site - a truly wonderful site for all kinds of recipes! A recipe using rapid rise yeast was posted but it used too many eggs. However, there was also a link to a previous recipe by Lovella that used only two eggs for 5 loaves! She had also posted the recipe in more detail on her personal blog. What really drew me to her recipe though, was that it used not only the zest of an orange and a lemon but it also used the whole fruit! The only drawback was that it used dry active yeast. (Please click on the hot links above to see the MGCC site, other recipes and visuals for making Paska.)
I emailed her to see about converting to rapid rise and a couple of other questions. I had a response from her and one of the other MGCC girls within a few hours!
When I sent the email, I wasn't sure if I would make a full batch or a half batch. The blender I had was rather old and I wasn't sure it would be up to such a labourious task so I was debating about using my food processor instead. I've always mixed and kneaded my dough by hand even though I do have a dough hook for my Kitchen Aid stand mixer.
In the end, I decided to go with a full recipe and knead the dough by hand. I also got a new blender on sale!
I made a couple of changes to the recipe. Lovella's called for real butter but to be honest, I never buy butter and couldn't justify paying close to $6/lb! I compromised by using a good quality block margarine and added half & half rather than plain milk.
Rather than proofing the yeast, I combined the rapid rise yeast (same amount just different type) with two cups of flour and the vanilla pudding mix. The water that would have been used to proof the yeast was used to clean out the excess liquid in the blender then added to the other liquids.
The citrus truly makes this recipe! The aroma as you are preparing the dough and as the bread bakes is like being in a bakery in the heart of a citrus grove!
So, was the effort worth it and did it take me back to all those years ago when I last tasted Paska?
Yes and Yes! It is truly a festive treat for the senses!
2 tablespoons rapid rise/instant yeast
2 cups all purpose flour
1 instant vanilla pudding mix (4 serving size - NOT light version!)
1 medium lemon
1 medium orange
1 1/4 cups half & half
1/2 cup margarine or butter
2 large eggs
3/4 cup + 1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup warm (not hot!) water
5-6 cups all purpose flour - enough to make a smooth soft dough
Combine the 2 cups flour, rapid rise yeast and pudding mix in a bowl and set aside.
Grate the zest of both the orange and the lemon and set aside. Remove as much of the white pith as possible and discard. Cut up the orange and lemon into small pieces - removing all seeds. Place the cut up fruit and zest in blender.
Cut the margarine into small pieces and place In a microwave safe bowl with the half & half. Heat on medium till margarine is melted. Add to the blender with fruit. Allow the liquid to cool slightly before starting to puree. Cover and puree for 2 to 3 minutes. NOTE: if the liquid is too hot the lid of the blender will rise and you will lose part of your needed liquids!
Add the eggs, sugar and salt to the blender and mix for another minute or two or until very smooth. Turn off the blender and check the measurement either on the blender jar or in a measuring cup. You should have about 4 1/2 cups - depending on the size of the fruit and eggs used. If it is a bit more or less don't worry as you will adjust the amount of flour added later. Pour the mixture into a large mixing bowl. Pour 1 cup lukewarm water into the blender and press stir for a few seconds. This will get almost all of the creamy mixture left in the blender. Pour the water mixture into the bowl with the fruit mixture. Stir the two together just to blend.
Add the flour/yeast/pudding mixture to the liquid and stir.
Gradually add more flour till you have a soft smooth dough. This should be about 5 - 6 cups depending on how much liquid you had in the blender.
Cover the bowl lightly with plastic wrap then place a towel over top. Allow to rise till double in size - about an hour or so.
Prepare the pans by spraying with Pam or brushing with canola oil.
Punch down the dough and shape into 5 loaves or 10 mini loaves. The dough will be sticky but just grease your hands with a bit of canola oil to keep the dough from sticking to them while you are working with it. (I poured some canola oil into a small dish to dip my fingers in as needed) Cover and let rise till double in size - about an hour or so. Note, that any loaves made in tin foil pans should be placed on a baking sheet for stability when moving and while in the oven for baking.
Preheat the oven to 350F and bake for about 20 minutes. Depending on the size of the pans this may take a few minutes more or less. The loaves will be a golden brown and will have a slightly hollow sound when you tap them on the top with your finger.
Remove from pans immediately and let cool completely on wire racks. While the loaves are cooling, make the icing.
Icing for Paska
1 cup block margarine, softened to room temperature
1/2 cup pasteurized egg white substitute (raw eggs are not advised for anyone with a compromised immune system, young children or the elderly)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
enough icing sugar to make a soft icing (about 2 cups)
Beat the margarine till creamy. Add the egg whites and beat till light and fluffy. Add the extracts and blend. Gradually add icing sugar till a smooth soft icing forms.
Ice the top of the loaves and decorate with various sprinkles.
NOTE: I haven't tried freezing the loaves with icing on them, but my understanding is that it can be done by placing the iced loaves on a cookie sheet to freeze. Once frozen, wrap with plastic wrap and store in freezer bag for up to one month. Unfrosted loaves can just be wrapped in plastic wrap and frozen in freezer bags then iced when they are thawed. If you aren't planning on eating the loaves the same day, freeze them as they tend to dry out fairly quickly. You can keep a loaf wrapped in the fridge for a few days but it is best used within a couple days. Unfrosted loaves can also be sliced and toasted.