The days approaching Easter were filled with excitement and anticipation for us while we were growing up in Serbia. As soon as we noticed the envelopes of different dyes and cartons of eggs waiting in the pantry, we became antsy, barely able to wait for “Veliki ÄŒetvrtak” or Big Thursday, to join in the ritual of coloring Easter eggs. The galley kitchen in our old house was too narrow to accommodate Mother’s slender figure joined by Njanja’s much more corpulent presence. When the three of us ran around, weaving through skirts and legs, the small space became like an anthill, teeming with small creatures.
Mother would empty an envelope in the water, add a tablespoon of vinegar to help set the color, and heat it until it boiled. She would place the eggs one by one carefully into the bubbling liquid, and let them move around and absorb the color for fifteen or twenty minutes. The moment when the eggs were to emerge from the murky swirls was greeted by wide open eyes. Upon resting our glances on a perfectly colored oval resting in the spoon glistening in Carmine Red, Prussian Green, Cadmium Yellow, Permanent Violet, or Cobalt Blue, the smiles of relief would appear, and the egg would be placed gingerly onto a plate to cool off.
We breathed in the astringent smell of vinegar waiting eagerly for our cue to affix the clingy decorative labels depicting adorable chickens and cute bunnies onto the eggs. After straightening the folds of the filmy material, making it become one with the surface, Mother would rub the eggs with bacon, making them shiny and beautiful, resplendent in their primary colors.
The first red egg was sequestered into the credenza to await the next year’s Big Thursday, replacing the old one that sat triumphantly on the shelf for a year. This egg was called “ÄuvarkuÄ‡a”, its purpose: to take care of the house and its inhabitants and protect them from the evil spirits. They say that this first red egg never rots, but I was never brave enough to test this hypothesis.
At the conclusion of this endeavor, there were baskets of colorful eggs adorning every flat surface of the house. We would approach them surreptitiously and caress their smooth surfaces, trying to pick the sturdiest specimens for the upcoming egg battle on Sunday morning. We called forth images of Father choosing a ripe watermelon, thumping and probing, and shook the eggs, knocked on them, and rolled them around. We pulled the ones we decorated on top, and marked the possible winners with a marker. Every day the position of the eggs in the baskets changed, as we attempted to be sly and sneaky, looking forward to the challenge.
Veliki Petak (Great Friday, aka Good Friday) was one of the few days during the course of the year that we observed the Eastern Orthodox Lent rules: no red meat, no dairy, no eggs. I am convinced that I mastered the art of delayed gratification ogling those beautiful eggs for three days, without being able to get to them.
Our Lenten dinner was not a humble affair. There was always a lot of pan-fried fish (trout or fresh-water bass), accompanied by crusty bread, potato salad with red onions and a vinaigrette, baked Serbian beans, black radish relish, and several desserts, including baklava. But those forbidden eggs taunting us with their vibrant splendor were the center of our attention.
Easter service started early and the lawn in the church yard was filled with people carrying baskets of decorated eggs, neatly tucked in checkered dish cloths and adorned with spring flowers. They passed their prettiest specimens around and received enough in return to make the basket full again. Those randomly collected eggs, each one different in style and hue, would make it home, only to undergo a serious evaluation from each member of the family.
The Easter Sunday table was covered with a crisp, white, starched tablecloth that awaited us after service when we sauntered in with our freshly scrubbed faces and squeaky-clean teeth. We wore our best clothes that Mother picked the night before and laid for us on the living room couch. We would solemnly sit at the table, appraising its offerings: magenta slivers of fresh radishes, crisp spears of green onions, white cubes of farmers’ cheese, a bowl of pale yellow kajmak* a platter exhibiting one of Mother’s baking masterpieces, and in the center: the basket of eggs, flanked by a wooden salt and pepper dispenser.
We would wait patiently while the adults took their places at the table, ready to grab the egg we had chosen days ago to be the contender. When everybody’s cups were filled with milk or yogurt, the egg battle could commence. The only rule that was imposed was the proper positioning of the egg in the hand. We went around, knocking egg against egg, sharper side to sharper side, obtuse to obtuse, until one egg was the absolute winner, having at least one of the sides intact. The other eggs became pure fodder for the masses, dunked in salt and eaten together with crunchy scallions. The winner went back to the basket, its owner jealously guarding it during any upcoming meal. These battles were not to be taken frivolously and everybody coveted the winning egg. But we all enjoyed the rest of the Easter breakfast, arguing the merits of each carefully chosen egg, and enjoying the wonderful food greeting us on the table.
*kajmak is made when the raw milk is slowly simmered on the stove to pasteurize. The fat rises to the top, and when the milk is cool, it is scooped up, lightly salted and used as a spread.
ROSE SHAPED BREAD (POGAÄŒA RUÅ½IÄŒARA)
This was one of our favorite breads to eat on Easter, shaped like a flower, shiny and glistening like the sun, perfect to usher in the spring.
- 1 inch piece of fresh yeast (or 1 envelope of dry instant yeast)
- 2 tsp sugar
- 200 ml warm milk
- 2 eggs, slightly beaten
- 100 ml plain yogurt or buttermilk
- 1 tsp coarse salt
- 2 Tbsp butter at room temperature
- 650gr all purpose flour (a bit more for dusting the counter)
- 120 gr (1 stick) butter at room temperature
- 1 egg, slightly beaten
Dissolve yeast and sugar in milk. When it blooms, whisk in eggs, yogurt, salt, and butter and stir until combined. Add most of the flour and knead in the bowl.
Turn over to the lightly dusted counter and continue kneading, adding more flour as needed, to get an elastic, shiny, slightly soft, but not sticky dough. Place in a greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap and keep on room temperature until the dough doubles, about 1 hour.
Punch the dough on floured surface and flatten into a rectangle about ¼ inch thick. Spread 2 tablespoons of butter over one half of the rectangle and cover the buttered side with the unbuttered one. Spread 1 tablespoon of butter over one half of the folded dough, and cover it with the unbuttered part, forming a square. Let it rest for 10-15 minutes.
Flatten it again into a rectangle and repeat. Let it rest another 10-15 minutes.
Flatten into a rectangle and spread the remaining 2 Tablespoons of butter over the whole dough. Roll into a tight roulade, placing the seam down. With a sharp knife cut slices 1 to 1 ½ inches wide and place cut side down into a round pan. Brush with beaten egg and let it rest on room temperature for 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350F. Bake your bread until golden brown and nicely risen, for 40-50 minutes. Allow it to rest in the pan before removing it to a baking rack.