Easter was kind of a big deal in our house growing up. My parents are from South Side Chicago Polish Catholic households where food was a big part of any celebration. This continued when they moved to Arizona, though some of the mainstays of our meals became a bit more challenging to find so far from home, way out in the dessert. Carnitas? Sure thing! Kishka? Uh, not so much.
We adapted. We could find decent pierogi, so that wasn’t an issue nor was good rye bread (thank you Jewish snowbirds!) There was the year my Dad decided the polish sausage from the deli across town wasn’t garlicky enough so we started making our own with an obscene amount of garlic. Heads upon heads of garlic. Sausage making – now there’s a fun family activity. Nothing like making the kids stink to high heaven for a few weeks to bond the family together.
One of my favorite of all Easter traditions was the butter lamb. When we couldn’t find the symbolic butter lamb in stores (big surprise) we made a craft project out of it, sculpting our own out of sticks of butter. We got pretty damn creative – peppercorn eyes, rosemary smiles and fuzzy fur made of butter forced through a garlic press. The thing needed a severe shearing by the time we were done with it. There was always a big scene around the dinner table for the traditional “beheading of the lamb” as my uncle smeared the poor things face on his bread. Traumatic perhaps, but my family is nothing if not hilarious. Now I turn my nose up at the preformed butter lambs at the Jewel. Humph. As if. (UPDATE 4/5/10: Yesterday during Easter dinner as we beheaded yet another butter lamb, my Dad and I laughed about this. He was quick to point out that we used to call our homemade creations “butter dogs” because they looked more ugly canine than cute farm animal. I had completely forgotten that. HA!)
When I was in high school, our local parish got a Polish priest. I didn’t think much of it at the time but it was kind of a big deal to all three Polish families in our ‘hood. Much to my mother’s delight, he brought the tradition of Swieconka (sh-vee-en-soon-kah) to Holy Saturday. This is a beloved Polish tradition that involves the blessing of the baskets. Now then, being Polish, we knew just what this meant: baskets containing traditional foods are brought to the church for a blessing of the Easter meal. I can’t say this was true for the other parish families.
So at the anointed time on the Saturday just before Easter Sunday, we showed up to church with our basket ‘o treats, as does the Paluch family. Taking our place in one of the pews, we look around. The church is filled with other parish families holding brightly colored Easter baskets filled with garish plastic Easter grass and a few plastic neon eggs looking around a bit confused. My mother and Mrs. Paluch exchanged a knowing, smug glance. I’m just confused – what’s with all the Easter baskets? Why would you bring that hideous crap to church? The other parents have a common look of horrified embarrassment and the realization that they had really missed the boat on this one. Apparently the new priest failed to mention exactly what “the blessing of the baskets” was all about. The next year, oh boy, did those church ladies get the message. They didn’t just bring a few things symbolic of the Easter meal, they hauled in entire hams. The whole thing still makes me laugh.
My favorite part of the Easter meal, besides the pierogies of course, has always been the kolacky. These delicate butter cookies always factored into our holiday celebrations at Easter and usually Christmas too. There’s always a big debate over which filling is best, with apricot and cheese the run-away favorites. I always have a soft spot in my heart for traditional flavors like poppyseed, prune and almond and I make them anyway. I don’t care if no one eats them. Actually, someone always does. They’re good, just not the obvious choices.
I’ll be honest. I don’t know where I got this recipe as I don’t think it’s a family secret. It’s been jotted down, very obtusely, in my recipe notebook for as long as I can remember and it’s what I turn to every year. Some dough recipes use cream cheese and I got into a big debate with a fellow pastry chef once about this, but I like the tenderness this simple recipe brings. As for fillings, yeah I cheat and buy the canned Solo fillings. So what. One year, I’ll get around to making my own. But I like variety – lots and lots of variety – so I pick up several cans as well as making a simple cream cheese filling. Here’s the thing about those canned fillings – they’re made to bake without a lot of bubbling and mess. Jam doesn’t always behave that way so if you choose to use jam or jelly, test a few out first so you know what you’re dealing with.
Some quick tips – roll the dough out between two sheets of plastic wrap right when you make it and it’s warm. Then chill and cut out the rounds. Because here’s the deal – it rolls out easiest when it’s warm but cuts cleanest when it’s cold. I use a piping bag to pipe out a line of filling down the center of the pasty circle because it’s fast and easy but you could use a spoon or even a Ziploc bag with the corner cut off. Then fold up those sides and really pinch them together. If you don’t get a good seal, they’ll blow open during baking. Which isn’t awful but they’re kind of ugly that way. No worries, more snacks for the cook!
I make these somewhat small – with a 2” cutter – but you can make them any size you like. I like a lot of variety in the fillings so the smaller size works to my advantage because you can eat more. Funny how that works. This year, there were 5 flavors – apricot, raspberry, cheese, poppy and prune. Let them cool completely, then dust with powdered sugar. Powdered sugar is key.
STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: SHAZZAM! C’mon! These are a family favorite. When my Dad is in town (like right now) I make them especially for him and most especially when the whole family calls and specifically asks for them (like yesterday.) That is food gifting at it’s best – when you walk in with the telltale box and it’s immediately taken out of your hand, disappears for a bit and family members reappear a few minutes later with powdered sugar dust on their shirts, denying everything.
UPDATE 4/5/10: I made about 135 of these little delights yesterday morning. This afternoon there were about 20 left. Hmmmmm. I know for a fact I only ate 3. It was my Dad, I know it was. He can really hoover these things up. I love that about him.
Makes about 11 dozen cookies
¾ pound unsalted butter, softened (3 sticks)
½ cup sour cream
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon kosher salt
fillings: canned Solo filling, jam, or cream cheese filling (recipe below)
- For the dough: in the bowl of a standing mixer, cream the butter on medium speed for a minute or two until smooth.
- Add the sour cream and mix until well blended
- Add half the flour and the salt and mix until incorporated somewhat.
- Add the remaining flour and mix until fully combined.
- Turn the dough out onto a counter and give a few gentle kneads to incorporate any remaining dry bits.
- Roll: Divide the dough into 4 pieces.
- Roll each piece, while room temperature, between two sheets of plastic wrap until thin – about 1/16”.
- Stack the plastic wrapped sheets on a sheet pan and refrigerate until firm – about an hour or overnight if well wrapped. Watch the edges – if you refrigerate overnight, any exposed bits of dough will dry out. Dough can be frozen up to 2 months at this point, if you wish.
- Preheat the oven to 350°F and line 3-4 sheet pans with parchment or silpat mats.
- Cutting: Take one sheet of dough out of the fridge (keep remaining dough in the fridge), remove the top sheet of plastic and cut out circles with a 2” round cutter.
- Filling: Place the dough circles on a very lightly floured work surface and pipe or spoon a bit of filling down the center of each circle – about 1 teaspoon of filling.
- Fold up the side of the dough circle and pinch tightly to seal. Place on prepared sheet pans, spacing about ½” apart.
- Bake: Bake, rotating the pans top to bottom and front to back halfway through baking, for about 15-18 minutes total, until lightly golden brown.
- Let cool completely, then dust with powdered sugar.
- Kolacky are best served the day they are made but will keep, tightly wrapped for a day or two.
Cream Cheese Filling:
8oz cream cheese, room temperature (1 package)
½ cup sugar
1 large egg yolk
1 teaspoon vanilla
pinch of kosher salt
In the bowl of a standing mixer, cream together all the ingredients until well combined. Refrigerate until needed.