A Moldovan Easter: Pasca
Let me start out by explaining something. Orthodox Easter is usually not on the same day as Catholic/Protestant Easter, but this year, both Easters fell on the same day. In Moldova, where probably 95% of the population is Romanian Orthodox, Easter is a big deal. And if Easter is a big deal, than Easter of the Dead is an even bigger deal. Easter of the Dead is celebrated exactly one week after Orthodox Easter, and it’s essentially one big party in the cemetary where people honor their dead relatives. It’s awesome. In honor of the Moldovan tradition of having a week-long celebration that carries on the whole week in between Easter and Easter of the Dead, I’m doing a post on a typical sweet Easter bread that is made in Moldova, called pasca or cozonac.
Many returned Peace Corps volunteers from Moldova live in the DC area, and my friend Robin (with whom I went to grad school and she was also in PC-Moldova) and I decided to have a Moldovan Easter masa (a masa being a low-key party or get-together). At this point I’m practically an old hand at throwing together a pretty good Moldovan masa, if I do say so myself, but this time was different. This time was intense and a bit crazy. We made a number of Moldovan dishes, and this was our menu:
Coltunasi cu brinza (cheese tortellini)
Fried placinta cu brinza (dough stuffed with cheese)
Baked placinta cu mere (dough stuffed with sautéed apples) and another with cabbage
Sarmale (veggies and rice wrapped in cabbage leaves)
Saslik/frigarui (depending on whether you speak Moldovan or Romanian…. it’s basically yummy barbecued chicken)
Challah (not Moldovan, but it was something I’d been wanting to try)
Pasca (sweet Easter bread)
I don’t know if you were counting, but that’s 3 different kinds of bread, plus the pasta dough. And that’s a lot of kneading for a girl to do in one afternoon. My arms are still recuperating. This masa was definitely one to write home about, but it was more work than Thanksgiving. That’s right, folks. This should not be attempted by the faint-of-heart. We had a total of 15 guests and most of the things that we made required significant prep time. There were no “mix this together, put it in the oven and bake” instructions– items had to be individually assembled and that takes a long time.
Making the pasca, though, was actually one of the easier parts. Granted, I am always a little nervous when making something with yeast for the first time, but it actually turned out really well. Traditionally pasca has raisins in it, but I put raisins in two loaves and chocolate chips in the other two loaves. If there’s a way that I can squeeze chocolate into something, I will.
Traditionally pasca is baked in a large tin can so that it’s at least 10 inches tall. We didn’t have any tin cans that size so I made mine in loaf pans. There was a bit more crust than I think there’s supposed to be simply because more surface area was exposed, but it turned out pretty well considering I had to make many adjustments to the recipe and I’d never made it before. A Moldovan Easter masa is never complete without pasca, and it turns out that the leftovers make great French toast!
Hristos a inviat!
Sweet Easter Bread (Pasca)
This recipe is half of the original recipe, and I’d played around with the amounts and so forth. The original recipe came from our Peace Corps-Moldova cook book and had things written in terms of what you could get locally (such as packets of vanilla sprinkles rather than liquid vanilla extract), so I’ve tried to provide something that can be made easily State-side. Also, I kind of modified certain parts of the recipe, like when it said to knead the dough for 45 minutes. I kneaded it for probably 15 minutes and it turned out just fine, but I’ve included the original recipe as written below for humor value.
8 c flour
1/2 c sour cream
1/4 c melted butter
2 tbsp melted margarine
1 packet yeast
3/4 c warm milk
1 cup sugar
1.5 tbsp oil
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp lemon juice
Raisins and chocolate chips
1/4 to 1/2 cup oil in a small bowl
Combine yeast with half the warm milk (no need to be too precise). Sprinkle in a little flour and 1 tbsp sugar. Mix well. Let rise in a warm place (20-30 minutes).
Beat eggs together with sugar and vanilla. Beat ten minutes with mixer, or 30 minutes by hand (Hang on. Can you imagine beating something for 30 minutes by hand? My arm would fall off!) until it becomes a thick mixture. Mix in cinnamon and lemon. In a large bowl, mix together 6 cups of flour, sour cream, butter, margarine, egg mixture, oil, the yeast mixture and the rest of the warm milk. Kean until the dough comes together, about 5-6 minutes. Place in a very warm place and leg rise 7-8 minutes.
Next, knead dough while adding the remaining flour until it becomes tough. Then, dipping your hands in the bowl of oil from time to time, knead the oil into the dough. You kneading is finished when you see little air bubbles in the dough. Be patient, this takes about 45 minutes and lots of muscle.
Put dough back in bowl and place bowl in a very warm place. Wrap the bowl in lots of towels to keep in the heat. Let rise 2 hours. Knead raisins or chocolate chips into dough.
Put dough in butter baking tins (any shape). Only fill dough 1/3 of the way up the side of the pan. Let the dough rise in the baking pans uncovered for about 1 hour. Brush top of bread with an egg white/sugar mixture. Place in a very hot oven (about 450 degrees) and bake for 10 minutes. The lower the temperature to the lowest setting (about 350 degrees– the ovens you find in most Moldovan villages don’t have temperature settings in degrees; it’s just “high” and “low.”) and bake for another 35 to 40 minutes until golden brown.