POLISH EASTER IS YUMMY: SEE WHAT WE EAT AND WHY [+DELISH RECIPE]
It usually takes us Poles by surprise. We barely manage to get rid of a Christmas tree while another important holiday is already there… Easter! Time to celebrate once again. And this festive season is actually even more important than Christmas.
Most of the traditions in Polish culture derive from religion. Easter is celebrated according to the Western Roman Catholic calendar but some of the customs are influenced by pagan rituals. You can tell that Easter is just around the corner once you spot people on the streets with little… palms in their hands. Yes, you are right, Polish climate is way to cold for palm trees (with one exception) but we obviously came up with our own version of those (made of colourful woven and dried stalks). Palm Sunday is always the final Sunday before Easter when Christians commemorate Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem the week before his passion and crucifixion. This celebration opens the Holy Week which is packed with different preparations, such as spring cleaning, cooking and baking. Catholics also spend a significant amount of time in church, getting ready for holidays not only in a physical but also spiritual way. Modern families usually still take part in the celebrations, regardless of their religious beliefs.
It is not only the “palms” that we bring with us to the church but also food! On Holy Saturday Poles prepare baskets with the samplings of traditional Easter food (Święconka) and take it to the church to get these special products blessed. All products have their special significance. Some people like to keep it simple, others cannot help themselves but to take almost everything from their fridge. In rural Poland the size of a basket used to be considered as a matter of pride and reflection of the social status and position in the local community.
In each basket you will surely find: eggs (which symbolize life and Christ’s resurrection), bread (symbolic of Jesus), sausage and ham (associated with joy and abundance), horseradish (symbolic of the bitter sacrifice of Christ) and salt (represents purification). Some will aslo put there something sweet like yeast cake. Kids usually add some chocolate eggs and bunnies. The decoration of the basket has a symbolic meaning too. Once filled, it is covered with a white linen cloth which symbolizes the shroud of Christ. Sometimes it also decorated with some greenery — boxwood is the most popular one.
According to the tradition the blessed food is supposed to remain untouched until the next day. It is hard to say how many people still follow this custom (which definitely requires a strong willpower!) but one thing remains unquestioned: everyone can eat as much as they can on Easter Sunday.
So let the feast begin! Easter celebration starts early in the morning and special festive breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Some believe that every member of the family and each guest should have a bite of all the blessed foods. You will not find pierogi on the Easter table but do not get easily discouraged (we eat them all year long after all!), there is plenty of food to satisfy even those with the most sophisticated taste.
Eggs, which symbolize the new life, to begin with. Poles usually share the blessed eggs while exchanging wishes. Don’t be afraid to grab an egg in a slightly darker colour. One of the common Easter practices is to boil eggs with onion skins or dark coffee in order to slightly change their colour and give them a specific look for this special occasion.You can also use other products, such as red cabbage, beet or turmeric to naturally dye the eggs. Some also really enjoy painting and carvings them. Painted of carved eggs, called pisanki are sometimes real works of art. It also a fun activity for kids if they do not fancy helping in the kitchen during preparations. Eggs might be served with horseradish or tartar sauce (made of mayonnaise, pickles, onion and pickled mushrooms). Stuffed eggs are also quite a thing for Easter.
Sausage, roast meats, ham and pâté (pasztet)… on Easter meat lovers will not be disappointed! Among all kinds of meat it is the white sausage (biała kiełbasa) which always steals the show. Made of an unsmoked minced pork, mixed with small amounts of beef and veal, it is covered in a thin layer of pork casings then seasoned with garlic, marjoram, salt and pepper. Usually served boiled of fried with onion chunks.
Looking for something a bit more spicy that goes well with the meat? Add some horseradish to your cold cuts and it will draw out even more of the meat flavor. If you find it too strong and your eyes start to water grab a slice of bread and smell it —this simple practice should neutralize the strong horseradish aroma.
Don’t be surprised if you see savory dishes and sweets all at the same table. This is how we do it in Poland – to make sure everyone can eat whatever they want at any time. Since we brought up the sweet subject it is high time to elaborate on shortcrust tart (mazurek), cheesecake (sernik), poppy-seed cake (makowiec) and yeast cake (baba drożdżowa). A proper tall yeast cake (with a hole inside) is supposed to be made of 12 up to 15 egg yolks! Thanks to the egg yolks it has a beautiful yellow color. It is usually drizzled with icing or sprinkled with icing sugar. The shortcrust cake might be perceived as a complete opposite of the baba drożdżowa — it is very flat, consists of a thin layer of pastry and another layer of icing. Usually decorated with walnuts, almonds and dried fruit. Mazurek is supposed to be simple and extremely sweet. Cheesake (sernik) is usually quite filling and creamy. Its secret lies in the special kind of cheese (called twaróg) which is our national pride. Twaróg is sweeter and more dense than quark or ricotta and hence the perfect consistency of the cake. Last but definitely not least: poppy-seed cake (makowiec) which we also eat on Christmas. It is usually spun like a strudel, which may remind you of Austrian apple and cherry strudels, filled with poppy seed and nuts, covered with thick icing.
Easter is all about celebration, family and friends gatherings but for Poles it is also about food and delicacies full of symbolic meaning. One of the most important dishes which simply cannot be missing on the Easter table is żurek — a sour rye soup. It is the rye sour (zakwas) which gives this soup its specific taste. You can either buy or make it yourself. We definitely recommend the second option. It takes a couple of days for the rye sour to ferment so just make sure you start preparing it a couple of days before making the actual soup. In proper żurek you will find most of Easter specialities: white sausage, horseradish and eggs. Sometimes you may see it served in a bread bowl but this idea is not derived from any specific Polish tradition. Poles respect bread way to much to actually use it as a bowl which you eventually throw away. We may leave you here with this recipe…and you know what to do, right?
(sour rye soup)
For the rye sour:
- 6 spoons of rye flour
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 3 bay leaves
- 5 allspice berries
- 2 cups of warm water
For the soup:
- 2 carrots — trimmed and peeled
- 2 parsnips — trimmed and peeled
- 1/2 celery root — peeled
- 1 leek (the white part) — peeled
- 2 onions – 1 peeled and and halved and 1 chopped
- 3 garlic cloves
- 7 cups = 5 l water
- 3 thick stripes of bacon — chopped
- 4 white sausages — cut into chunks
- 4 spoons of grated white horseradish
- 3 spoons of sour cream
- 3 bay leaves
- 5 allspice berries
- 2 tablespoons of marjoram
- Black pepper and salt
- 4 eggs — hard-cooked
For the rye sour:
Put the rye flour, cloves of garlic, bay leaves and allspice berries in a jar, add water and mix it together. Bear in mind that the mixture will expand so make sure the jar is big enough and only half full in the very first phase. Cover the jar with a cheesecloth and set aside in a warm place for around 4-5 days. If you don’t use the entire zakwas while making żurek you can store it in a fridge for one more week and make some more żurek again a bit later.
For the soup:
- Place all vegetables (except for the chopped onion) in a large pot with water. Bring to boil, lower the heat, then simmer for around 30-40 minutes.
- In the meantime fry together chopped onion, bacon and chunks of sausages.
- Strain the broth and discard all of the veggies.
- Add fried onion, bacon and sausages into the broth. Pour the rye sour. Add bay leaves and spice berries. Bring to boil, then reduce the heat and cook for another 15-20
- Add horseradish, cream and the rest of spices: marjoram, salt and pepper. Mix everything together and cook for another 10 minutes.
- Serve with a half of a hard-cooked egg in each serving.
Smacznego i wesołych świąt!