Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Easter Cleaning, Lamb Cake, Onion Skins, My Mother, Purple Cabbage, and a Blessing

Easter at our house began with cleaning. Deep cleaning. Fanatical cleaning. The priest was coming! The day before Easter the priest and his altar boys would arrive to bless the Easter table. That meant that the house had to be immaculate (even the parts the priest wouldn't see.) This was not to honor the priest, entirely. It was also to fend off the fact that our priest was a gossip. My mother never wanted to hear "Well, Mrs. Definski is not reallllllllly a good homemaker. The priest said ..................." So we cleaned. We made clean surfaces even more immaculate. We banished bacteria forever. If my mother so much as thought about dust, we were dispatched to vanquish it.

If she could have figured out a way for our cocker spaniel to clean, then my beloved pooch, Princess, would have surely been fitted out with her very own cleaning pail and rags.

I could always be found doing one of my least favorite chores -- cleaning the stairs and railings and banister on the stairs leading from the entry hallway to the second floor. This meant sweeping them on my hands and knees with a dustpan and brush, including the landing, then washing them with a damp cloth (especially into the corners - there would be an inspection later). Occasionally, a light waxing would be added. It was not a nasty chore, just one I grew to loathe.

Not only would things have to be cleaned, everything would have to be cooked. In a Polish household at Easter, that is a tall order. There were certain foods that were mandatory - and literally dozens of add-ons. The mandatory items for the table were babka ( a rich egg bread with raisins), kielbasa ( a fabulous ring of garlicky smoked sausage), mountains of pierogis, ham ( a huge one with the fat on top cut in squares and studded with cloves), Mazurek ( a rich, shortbread-type cake), beets and onions in vinegar and sugar, a special cake with cherries and walnuts and more butter and eggs than should ever be seen in one recipe, and the lamb.

The lamb was a cake made in a special cast iron mold. The mold had two halves, which, when their baked contents were assembled, made a perfect seated lamb. This lamb would then become the homemaker's prime focus. Decorate the lamb. It was almost a mantra. Decorate the lamb. Decorate the lamb. Decorate the lamb.

The idea was to end up with a realistic looking spring lamb -- you know, like the ones on Hallmark cards. That kind of realistic. Of course you could BUY a lamb from a Polish bakery. (Cheater. Cheater. None of that in MY family. That would be like buying Hillshire Farms Kielbasa instead of the homemade ones from the Janek family or from Sikorski's meat market. )

First, the lamb had to be enthroned on the right pedestal cake plate. It should stand above the other foods, discretely calling attention to itself. Then it was frosted with my mother's own combination of butter cream frosting and marshmallow fluff. Then the frosting was patted with handfuls of grated coconut to simulate lambswool. The eyes, nose and mouth were made with narrow strips of sliced gumdrops or jellybeans in the appropriate pastel colors. A narrow ribbon was tied in a sweet bow around the neck. Then my mother would make colored frosting and design a bed of spring flowers, grasses and leaves for the lamb to snuggle down in. One year she even put a little flower behind the lamb's ear. The goal was to either have the priest make a comment about the lamb, and/or to have another Polish homemaker look enviously at YOUR lamb.

Mom's lambs were fun. They always looked a little goofy. It never mattered what she did, you could always imagine that her lambs were the ones needing lessons in Remedial Gamboling. They were sweet, but as I said, a little goofy. I loved them. I never told her they were goofy. No one did. We told her they were beautiful and we meant it. She would step back, wipe her hands on her apron, smooth back a hair from her own forehead and say, "Really? He doesn't look a little funny?" We never had the heart to tell her. Her lambs were never going to be the ones to bleat on-key. But they would be the ones that children would love.

And of course, the table also had to have the boiled eggs. Our family would occasionally use the commercial egg dyes, but it was more often that we would use the old Polish farm methods.

For various shades of brown from tan to the richest terra cotta imaginable, boil eggs with some water and vinegar and a bunch of onion skins. The color is stunning.

For pale through robin's egg through royal blue, use eggs, boiling water, vinegar and cut up purple cabbage.

So our egg plate would have eggs in brown shades and blue shades.

All of these foods would be set out on the table on a perfect white tablecloth in a flawlessly immaculate room for the priest to enter the home and bless the food and leave. This blessing took all of five minutes. Days of work. Five minutes worth of blessing.

Then the food would be refrigerated until the next day.

I loved those years. The priests do not visit anymore, although in some communities, if you can still find a Polish church, they may have an afternoon where you can bring baskets of food to the church for blessing. I did this one year when I lived in Denver -- gone were the immaculate houses to impress the priest. Now we had fabulously decorated baskets to impress him. Denver, as you can imagine, is not exactly a hotbed of Polish ethnocentrism. Because of that, good kielbasa were in short supply. My mother would send them out by airfreight each year. She'd mail them in the morning and we could get them that night at the airport. (This was before express mail). So, imagine me in a strange tiny church with my fancy basket. The priest, surprised to see anyone under 60 doing this, lifts the corner of the napkin covering our beribboned basket. Inside was revealed a dazzling lamb and a fat, juicy kielbasa. In the midst of his blessing in Polish he snuck in the phrase -- "Nice kielbasa. Lovely lamb".

And I, like millions of Polish housewives before me, beamed and beamed.

Labels: , , ,


Blogger Chris (the Zeph) said...

Love the story about the lamb cake! I have a lamb cake mold that, my mom says, came over on the boat from The Netherlands - not really sure if that's the case, but it makes for a good story.

Nonetheless, my brother and I would do things like put M&Ms up the lamb's nose and chocolate chips piled at its rear-end (middle school boys . . . oh wait, that was last year!). Since getting married almost five years ago I have made the cake every year in my family (my mother gave me the mold as a pre-inheritance gift) and have sometimes made multiple cakes, giving one to the in-laws or to my pastor or to a neighbor.

Thanks for your Easter story! Enjoy your cake!

8:25 PM  
Blogger Jayne said...

Oh Mata... I just grinned and grinned as I read this and imagined your mom's lambs. What lovely and rich memories you carry in your heart my friend. You are blessed indeed and I am sure your lamb is so worthy of accolades! Hugs to you!

8:47 AM  
Anonymous susie q said...

Great story, we are Polish too, but my mom was mostly all about the dinner which was very scrumptious, funny how they were from poor peasant backgrounds but had the most delicious food, so lovingly prepared & presented. I was spoiled by it. I critique all the meals I eat elsewhere and most don t measure up, sometimes it shocks me that people eat like that!!!

1:12 PM  
Blogger L. said...

I just found your blog Googling, "easter bless kielbasa."

Nice to know I`m not the only one out here with these memories!

3:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a wonderful story .. I found it by googling "frosting for lamb cake" ... I'm attempting my own lamb this year ... not so fancy as Mom's ...

Your stories of the Polish spread remind me of being a little girl at Buscia's house ... :-)

9:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have been making a lamb cake every year since my daughter was born. One year I even packed the mold in my luggage when celebrating Easter in Texas, so it was wonderful finding out that there are others keeping the tradition alive. I had remembered the lamb cakes from Easters at my grandmother's house, but I find that it is not very common where I am on the west coast. I have deviated from the fluff and coconut frosting and pipe the icing wool with a star tip.

2:51 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Site Feed