Easter looks radically different this year for Ukrainians who saw their lives shattered by Russia’s brutal invasion.
The typical communion traditions, celebrated inside cathedrals or from the warmth of welcoming homes, aren’t possible for those fleeing as refugees or hiding in bomb shelters. For loved ones praying for peace from half a world away, honoring Ukrainian traditions, like baking Paska, the country’s traditional Easter cake, has taken on new meaning.
“We’re not only fighting for our democracy and our land, we’re also fighting for our identity,” said Oksana Onysko, a Ukrainian who runs a day care in Jackson. “This is a very significant part of that.”
For Holy Week she baked two loaves, one for the News&Guide and the other for her brother, a law student on the West Coast.
Onysko almost wasn’t able to make the Paksa at all. The baking tins were stuck in the mail, and she worried a valley snowstorm would delay their delivery. When the pans finally did arrive late on Monday, she immediately set to work assembling the batter. She had to stay up until midnight waiting for the dough to double in size.
“Maybe it was the altitude,” Onysko said.
She’s hoping the loaf destined for her brother, Andrii, will make it out of the storm and arrive in time.
The Ukrainian word for Easter, Velykden, translates as “The Great Day.” This season, Onysko said she’s identifying more with the “betrayal” and “abandonment” parts of the Christian resurrection story, as opposed to its lighter message of hope.
Ukraine is known as the “breadbasket of Europe” because of its fertile lands, well suited to grain production. But beyond its role as a primary export, wheat has cultural significance too, especially when transformed into the “body of Christ” for religious ceremonies.
“One of my brightest memories is staying up the entire night before Easter,” Onysko recalls, a tradition that would always end with “bells ringing” and the breaking of bread.
Onysko included a braided cross in the center of the loaf sent to her brother, which increased the difficulty but also its meaning. If she was going to do it, she wanted to do it right, the way her mother and grandmother would’ve done it.
“Prayer is an essential part of baking bread,” she said.
This year, she was praying for her parents’ safety. They both fled to another European nation as refugees.
She also prayed that the loaves would turn out alright.
Typically the Easter bread is prepared by elders in the family, with expertise passed from generation to generation. Onysko had never actually attempted the challah-like baking process before, and she said the “intimidating” braiding process took “patience and creativity.”
Despite her concerns, the Paska turned out marvelously. The eggy dough baked evenly, without settling, and the egg-washed crust offered a satisfying chew. The chef had to take this reporter’s word on the flavor; she is on a vegan fast for Lent.
“It smells like it’s supposed to,” she gleefully told her brother over FaceTime.
To try making Paska yourself, Onysko offered the recipe attached to this story.
“For those who can’t bake the bread, they can go and donate to volunteer organizations that will be feeding Ukrainians who were displaced,” she said.
While it might seem too simple to make bread in the midst of devastation, Onysko said a moment of solidarity can go a long way.
“We will still encourage people to talk about [the war] with their family members, and read the news and pay attention to what’s happening so that the whole world is aware of the devastation,” she said. “But again, that identity part is huge right now, for people to learn about Ukrainian culture.”
Several Jackson churches are spreading awareness for Ukraine this Holy Week. Some of Onysko’s day care clients also told her they’d attempt the Ukrainian recipe.
“It will be another beautiful teaching tool for our children,” one mother said on social media. “What a beautiful idea,” another wrote. “We will definitely do this.”
For real-time tips from the chef, reach out to Onysko on Instagram @oksana_onysko.
Ingredients 2 1/4 teaspoons instant dry yeast 1/3 cup granulated sugar 2 teaspoons salt 1/2 cup lukewarm water 1 cup whole milk 2 large eggs 1 teaspoon vanilla 1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly 5 cups all-purpose flour 1/2 cup golden raisins, or more if you prefer Topping 1 large egg 1 tablespoon water Instructions In a large bowl, mix the first 8 ingredients together. Add the flour and mix with a wooden spoon until a shaggy dough starts to come together. Dump this dough onto a work surface and begin to knead all of the dough ingredients. This will take some time. The dough should be stiff, but not dry. Knead until it comes together into a soft, smooth ball. The dough should not be sticky, and when you poke your finger slightly into the ball of dough, the dough should come back to you. Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl, cover and set aside in a warm place free of drafts. Allow it to rise until doubled in size, which will take about 90 minutes. Lightly grease your cake round pan(s) and set aside. Alternatively, you could use a springform pan. The sizing doesn’t matter, as long as each pan is well oiled and your dough fills about 1/2 of the space within the pan. Turn the risen dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Set aside 1/4 of it if forming braids and shapes for the top. Shape the remaining dough into a smooth ball, and place in the center of the prepared pan(s). Again, each pan should have enough dough to come up 1/2 of the pan of your choosing. Cover the Paska with a towel once again and let rise for about 45 minutes, until approximately doubled in size. Near the end of the rising time, preheat the oven to 350 F and place a rack in the lower middle of the oven. While the Paska is on its final rise, use the reserved dough for decoration by rolling portions into strands — similar to making snakes in art class as a child. Use these strands to create braids, swirls, crosses, etc. Truly this is where you can have fun and get creative! Once your dough has completed its second rising, adhere your dough designs to your loaf by brushing egg wash onto the top of the loaf and using that egg wash as a “glue’’ for gently sticking your dough designs on. Brush the entire top of the loaf with egg wash, making sure to get in the cracks and crevices. Bake times will vary depending on the pans you use. Bake until the top is a very rich golden brown and an internal temperature reaches 190 F. Remove from the oven and let cool for 5 minutes. After 5 minutes, pop the bread out of its pan, place on a cooling rack, and cool completely before cutting and serving. *Onysko's personal recommendations: Proof yeast before adding it to the mixture. Cover your Paska with parchment paper if it's browning quickly.