German-From-Russia Tradition Announces Easter

Swift, Tammy. "German-From-Russia Traditions Announces Easter." Forum, 31 March 2002, sec. B-3.

At the Swift house, we always knew Easter was around the corner when Mom brought up the coffee cans from the basement.

Those old Folgers cans would soon be loaf pans for what we called "baska," a meltingly light, frosted Easter bread.

Grandma Gartner passed this German-from-Russia tradition on to Mom. The closest relative I can find to it in food dictionaries is "kulich," a Russian anise-tinged bread that is baked in coffee cans to form tall, cylindrical loaves. The rounded tops of the loaves, when frosted, resemble snow-covered rooftops.

Around Easter, kulich is traditionally served with paska, a pyramid-like cheese mold.

Perhaps the bread's affiliation to paska is why it became known as baska in our family. Or maybe it's a Germanized derivative of the Polish Easter bread, bapka.

Whatever the case, it will always be known as baska in our family--as sit is in many German-from-Russia homes in western North Dakota.

Mom's baska-making process continues today, and it is an all-day ritual. Potatoes have to be boiled and riced; the dough has to be worked and "punched down" several times in a day.

The bread owes its sweet, delicate flavor to a variety of ingredients: the subtle licorice bite of anise, apricot brandy, real butter and cream. My arteries nearly slam shut thinking about it. The recipe also calls for saffron--which will give the bread a yellowish hue--but Mom usually skips this expensive spice.

Baska-making is truly physical. When Mom worked the dough, we would giggle when she "spanked" each round of dough to rid it of air bubbles. On occasion, she would let us try--probably glad we were willing to pound on something besides each other.

Mom would drop the sticky blobs of dough into well-greased coffee cans, then cover them with cheese cloth and allow them to rise.

After their stint in the oven, the light brown loaves would be ready for frosting. They would slide out of the coffee cans and topple onto the counter; looking like giant mushrooms with extra-thick stems.

The rounded sides and top were slathered with thick, white, still-warm frosting--also scented of anise.

The "rooftops" of our edible churches were garnished with Easter finery: jelly beans, nests of tinted coconut, candied sprinkles, sugar-spun chicks.

When finished, we would place the "mushrooms" on their sides and cut round, white slices from the loaves. A taste of the yeasty, feather-light bread was heaven, especially when toasted, then slathered with butter and honey.

Mom's massive recipe made 16 loaves at a time. Still, it never seemed like enough. She would give away loaves to friends and relatives (usually the ones with the raisins, which we hated).

Mutiny practically erupted whenever she would donate a couple of loaves to a local bake sale. In exchange, she would bring home something she had bought at the sale. We usually got the raw end of the deal. Somebody's cake-mix cupcakes buried in store-bought frosting could hardly compete with Mom's baska.

Baska fit every definition of a family tradition. Below, I've listed the recipe for it. Maybe--if you've got eight hours to do it and some bread-baking know-how--it will become one of your traditions, too.

Mom's Baska
Makes 16 loaves.
1 cup butter (not margarine)
10 eggs, beaten until foaming
2 teaspoons anise flavoring
1 pint sweet cream
2 packages active dry yeast
2 small potatoes
1 cup apricot brandy
1 small bottle liquid or 1 small
package dry saffron (optional)
3 tablespoons salt
Raisins or dried fruit (optional)

If you wish to use saffron, dissolve it in the brandy. Soak the yeast in 1 cup of lukewarm water. Cook the potatoes in eight cups of water; do not drain. Put the potatoes and water through a ricer, then through a strainer, saving the liquid each time. If you do not have a ricer, you can mash the potatoes as you put them through the strainer. Eliminate the big lumps.

Mix the sugar and butter, add the eggs. Add the anise, cream, yeast, potato water, brandy (with or without the saffron), salt and fruit.

Add enou
gh flour, a portion at a time, to form a dough. Place the dough in a large container (Mom used a canner) and set in a warm place. Let rise and punch down four or five times throughout the day.

Divide dough and roll it into balls. Place the dough balls in well-greased shortening or coffee cans. (Cans should be only one-fourth full.) Make sure there are no air bubbles in the dough. Let rise until it reaches the top.

To ensure a nice, light-brown color, place an aluminum foil tent over the dough. Bake at 350 degrees for 30-40 minutes, depending on the size of the can.

Remove from the oven, let sit for 5 minutes, then remove from the can and let cool. Frost.

2 pounds powdered sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons vanilla
1/2 cup butter, melted
Hot water
4-5 drops anise flavoring (you may use
almond or lemon flavoring instead, if

Mix ingredients with enough hot water to thin icing to spreading consistency. Stand the bread vertically on a plate and frost the sides and top, while icing is still warm. (It will harden as it cools.) Decorate with jelly beans, colored coconut or candy chicks and bunnies. To slice, place bread horizontally and slice as you would a regular loaf of bread.

Reprinted with permission of The Forum.

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