A traditional, yeasted, Polish Easter Babka cake – Babka Wielkanocna
I have always found Easter to be full of mystery, tradition and ritual. In some ways, the signs and symbols all around us at this time of year are simple and universal; eggs, representing new life, buds bringing with them the promise of spring. However, dig a little deeper and you’ll find theories on how the Christian celebration of Easter is said to have been influenced by the early pagan celebrations and spring fertility rituals. The name itself, Easter, is a derivative of the German Ostern. However, the Greek and Latin name for Easter is Pascha, a celebration specifically celebrating the resurrection of Jesus, though there are also symbolic and historical links to the Jewish holiday of Passover. It’s fascinating how our cultures have adapted, acquired and assimilated various rituals and traditions.
There are many folk customs associated with Easter, especially evident in Slavic cultures and linked to the Slavic festivals of spring. The painting and gifting of eggs, the preparation of an Easter basket, as well as the slightly more peculiar traditions of hanging a herring on a dry branch (herrings are also traditionally eaten on Good Friday and by Poles, at the Easter Sunday table) or soaking one another with water on Easter Monday.
In Poland, Easter provides the opportunity for a big feast following six weeks of Lenten fasting; churches, homes and streets are decorated with displays of colourful flowers, palms and intricately painted eggs. On Easter Saturday, Poles prepare their baskets (read more about how to make an Easter Święcone basket over on Ania’s blog here) filling them with food such as boiled and coloured or painted eggs (pisanki), ham or cured meat (kiełbasa), salt (sól) butter (masło), bread (chleb) and a sweet cake, such as a Baba or Babka. The basket is blessed by the priest on Easter Saturday and then eaten together for breakfast on Easter Sunday. Each item within the basket has a symbolic meaning – Eggs: new life or Christ’s Resurrection, Butter (often shaped into a lamb): goodwill, Kiełbasa or ham: God’s generosity, joy and abundance, Salt: necessary for life, Bread and Babka: symbolic of Jesus who is the bread of life.
The Easter traditions we look forward to the most as a family are our Polish Easter customs, particularly the preparation of the Polish Easter basket, which happens to also involve baking a traditional Babka, or a Mazurek cake, or perhaps a poppy seed roll or even a baked Easter cheesecake. Of course, in our home, the odd hot-cross bun is also consumed, the Easter bunny visits the children and even as adult, I look forward to collecting my very own stash of milk chocolate eggs – a ritual I don’t think I’ll ever grow out of.
A quote that I read today, shared by a friend, really struck a chord this morning:
“Rituals are how civilizations preserve their memory, keeping faith with those who came before us and handing on their legacy to the future.” R. Sacks
I’d love to hear how you are celebrating and if you are in the mood for a spot of Easter baking, perhaps you’ll give my Polish Easter Babka a go.
In my cookbook Wild Honey and Rye: Modern Polish Recipes, you can also find a recipe for Mini Lemon Babkas.
This Polish Easter Babka (Babka Wielkanocna) enriched with eggs and studded with dried fruit and raisins, has a sort of brioche-like texture. This recipe is made with yeast (the rising agent) and therefore requires two periods of proving (though no kneading) and is a lovely project to have a go at over the Easter holidays.
Polish Easter Babka
Almost every household in Poland will be enjoying a traditional Easter Babka this weekend. Usually, a small piece of the Babka (or even a whole Babka) is placed into the Easter basket, along with boiled and painted eggs, butter, ham or cured meat, salt and bread which is blessed on Easter Saturday and enjoyed for breakfast on Easter Sunday. I hope you’ll enjoy this tradition of making a Babka, and maybe even a basket over the Easter weekend.
- 125ml/ 1/2 cup milk
- 115g/½ cup butter, softened, plus extra for greasing the tin
- 2 tsp fast action/instant yeast + 4 tsp lukewarm water + 1 tsp granulated sugar
- 4 large eggs
- 180g/½ cup caster/fine sugar
- Pinch of salt
- 1 tsp vanilla bean extract
- 120g/ 1 cup all-purpose flour, ideally ‘00’ pasta flour or fine cake flour
- 120g/ 1 cup potato flour (available at the Polish shop) or cornflour
- 150g/ 1 cup raisins
- 1 orange, peeled
- 1 lemon, peeled
Icing sugar, to dust
- In a small pan, bring the milk to the boil then take off the heat and leave to one side. Add the butter to the milk and allow it to melt.
- In a jug, mix the yeast with lukewarm water and a teaspoon of sugar. Stir or whisk until dissolved and set to one side. It should begin to bubble.
- In a stand mixer or a large bowl, beat the eggs for five minutes until creamy to incorporate lots of air. Add the caster sugar, a pinch of salt and vanilla and mix well. Add the milk and butter mixture, along with the dissolved yeast and mix well. Stir in the flour, raisins and orange and lemon peel and mix to combine.
- Cover the bowl with cling-film and leave in a warm place for an hour - first rise.
- Preheat the oven to 350F/180C. Grease your cake tin well with plenty of butter.
- Carefully pour the dough into the tin, cover again and leave for 30-40 minutes - second rise.
- Remove the cling-film and bake in the oven for 30-35 minutes. The Babka should be golden and a cake tester should come out clean.
- Leave the Babka to cool in the tin. Once cool enough to handle, transfer it out onto a plate and dust with icing sugar. The Babka will keep well in a tin for up to 2 days.
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