How to Make a Traditional Polish Easter Basket
Are you interested in an Easter basket with a twist? Something that's less commercial, filled with deeper meanings, and is delicious, as well?
Below is a photo of the Easter basket we made in 2010. Each item in it holds special meanings for Easter. Making these baskets is one of my kids' favorite family traditions and they look forward to it every year. Read more to find out the meanings of the contents, and learn how to make your own traditional Polish Easter basket with your family. Feel free to share your own family's traditions in the comments section below!
As a child, my favorite holiday of the year was Easter, and my favorite part of Easter was when we took our basket for blessing on Holy Saturday. The church was filled with delicious smells, and I was entranced by the wide variety of baskets, covers, and contents. They ranged from huge baskets stuffed with food, decorated with ribbons, bows, and flowers, to the simple and elegant loaf of rye bread, gently nestled in a plain white cloth.
It was many years before I discovered that not everyone had baskets like ours. I still remember the first time I saw a commercially produced Easter basket. First, I was shocked by the notion of actually buying a pre-filled basket. Then I was horrified by the contents. Stuffies? Toys? Candies and chocolates, but no food at all? What did any of that have to do with Easter?
When I had children of my own, I continued making our traditional Polish Easter baskets, even though I was no longer Catholic and didn't know where I could take them for blessing, anyhow. Easter is now my children's favorite holiday, too, and making our basket is the highlight of our celebrations.
Below, you will learn about the various traditional items and a few non-traditional ones used to make up a Polish Easter basket. I hope that you, too, will enjoy adding this wonderful tradition to your family's Easter celebrations.
Of course, the first thing you need is a basket! Forget the brightly colored plastic atrocities out there. For this, you'll need something far more substantial!
I've accumulated a variety of baskets over the years, and have found that some work better than others. Some years, we've had just one large basket, while in others we've had a large basket, plus my daughters each made a smaller basket of their own. The basket we use now is fairly large with a flat bottom, shallow sides, and a high handle that doesn't get in the way while arranging the contents.
By the time the basket is filled it will be quite heavy, so look for something that is strong. A wide, flat bottom comes in handy, too, making it easier to spread everything out. It's both aesthetically pleasing and makes it easier to tuck the sometimes oddly shaped items together. A broad-bottomed basket with low sides is perfect.
For a larger basket, two handles make for easier carrying, but if you pick one with a single handle, make sure it's quite tall so you have plenty of room to arrange things under it. This type also allows for hanging a small decoration over the contents. If your children are making their own baskets, a small basket with a single handle works well; you'll just have to adjust the contents to fit.
You can line the bottom of the basket with decorative grass or something similar if you wish, but I would also recommend lining the bottom with paper towels. Some of the food items are moist, and this will help protect them and your basket. Here is a step-by-step blog post of our 2012 basket.
Now that you have your basket, what shall we fill it with?
Now, the Food!
The Staff of Life
The heart of the basket is a loaf of bread. This symbolizes Jesus, who is the "Bread of Life". It can be a traditional babka, a loaf of rye bread, or something you bake yourself. I like to make our own milk and egg bread, similar to challah, with some saffron for colour.
When you bake your own bread, you can position it in any shape you want. After the first rising, you can divide the dough into 3 or 4 pieces, rolling them out into strips, then braiding them together. Bake the bread in a bundt pan and you'll have an opening to place another basket item. Make small buns to fit in the smaller children's baskets.
Update: Here is a step-by-step article on the bread we baked for our 2012 basket.
Basic Bread Recipe
This is a basic, 2-loaf recipe. Feel free to double or triple it, if you wish. Our modifications for our Easter bread are at the bottom of the directions.
- 1 -2 Tbsp yeast (preferably the old style active dry yeast—not the quick rise stuff)
- 1 -4 Tbsp sweetener
- 1/4 cup butter or oil (optional)
- 2 1/4 - 2 3/4 cups warm liquid
- 2 tsp salt
- 6 -8 cups (whole wheat or blend)
- Dissolve yeast in warm liquid (water, milk, broth, potato water, or the liquid from making yogurt cheese) with 1 tsp sweetener (honey, sugar or molasses) in a large mixing bowl.
- After 5-10 minutes, add remaining sweetener, salt, butter and 3 cups flour.
- Beat at medium speed with mixer for 2 minutes, or 200 strokes with a wooden spoon
- Add 1 more cup flour and beat briefly.
- Add remaining flour until a soft dough results.
- Turn dough onto lightly floured surface and knead until elastic and smooth.
- Place dough in oiled bowl. Turn to oil all sides, cover lightly and place in a warm spot to rise until doubled.
- Punch down dough and knead briefly. Shape into loaves and place into oiled loaf pans. Cover lightly and allow to rise until the dough reached the top of the loaf pans.
- Bake in oven preheated to 350F (325F if using glass pans), in centre rack, for about 35 minutes.
- Cool on racks.
- Our variation:
- For sweetener, we used plain granulated sugar. For the liquid, we used 1 cup warm water to proof the yeast in the bowl of our mixer (I have a KitchenAide with a dough hook). In a tiny bowl, I used 1 Tbsp of warm water to soak the saffron threads. While those were doing their thing, I scalded 1 cup of milk and melted 1/4 cup butter into it. Two eggs were also added (the equivalent of about 1/2 cup liquid).
- Rather then shaping the dough into loaves and using loaf pans, you can divide the dough and make round loaves, or braid strips together for a fancy loaf, and bake it on a cookie sheet or pizza stone. This recipe is also great for making buns.
Now, the Eggs!
What would an Easter basket be without eggs?
Eggs, eggs, and more eggs! We usually make far more eggs then will fit in our baskets! The eggs symbolize Christ's resurrection and new life.
Usually, when people think of traditional Easter eggs, they tend to think of Ukrainian wax-resist eggs. This method of dying eggs is actually traditional in most East European countries including, of course, Poland.
Wax-resist eggs require a selection of dyes, beeswax, a special stylus, and a candle. You can dye blown eggs, but they tend to float and, after you've finally got them to sink and get properly dyed, they need to have the dye drained out of them. It can get messy! You can dye raw eggs, instead. The insides eventually dry out completely—assuming they aren't broken, first! These eggs are purely decorative. It's not a good idea to use these dyes on hard-cooked eggs as the dye can soak through, and it's not really edible.
We usually do a couple of different types of eggs. One type is called kraszanki. In the months leading up to Easter, we start to save our yellow onion skins for this. Simply boil your eggs with the onion skins loose in the water, along with a spoonful of vinegar, until they are the shade you want. For different colours, you can also dye your eggs by cooking them with red onion skins, red cabbage leaves, spices such as ground cumin or turmeric, paprika, or beet juice. Just add the items to the water with the eggs and spoonful of vinegar and cook them at least 15 minutes, or however long you want to get the colour depth you desire.
Once the eggs are dyed, you can try your hand at making drapanki. These are made by scratching designs into the eggshells with a sharp tool.
Tradition has it that no unnecessary work is to be done on Easter, so a number of eggs are placed in the basket already peeled. For these, we've started to make tea-dyed eggs. I like to use a method called "Dragon's Eggs," which I found while looking up Chinese New Year recipes. They are a beautiful addition to the basket!
Dragon's Eggs Recipe
Boil eggs for about 15 minutes. Allow to cool enough to handle.
Use the back of a spoon to crack the shells all over.
Return the eggs to fresh water and add:
- 3 T black tea
- 1 T Chinese five-spice powder
- 1/2 C soy sauce
- 1 tsp sugar
Total Time: up to 3 hours
- Cook the eggs for another 3 hours, adding more water as needed.
- After the tea-dyed eggs have cooled, carefully remove the shells to reveal the beautiful patterns.
There are a number of meats that can be added to your Easter basket.
Sausage (kielbasa) - This symbolizes God's favour and generousity. A ring of sausage can be used to frame a round loaf of bread (after splitting it at the sealed knot), or just tucked in wherever you can find the space! Choose a type with an edible casing.
Ham (szynka) - A symbol of great joy and abundance! I like to use a small dinner ham, tucked onto a decorative plate or small bowl, and push whole cloves into it in the shape of a cross.
Smoked Bacon (slonina) - another symbol of God's generosity and mercy. This is actually not something we usually include in our basket, though there was a year we included prosciutto, wrapped to make decorative rosettes.
Other Traditional Items
Some other traditional items to include in your basket include:
Butter (maslo) - This symbolizes Christ's reminder to us of the good will we should have towards all things. The butter is traditionally shaped into a lamb, but we usually put whipped butter, sometimes with garlic or herbs added, into a small bowl. I then use whole cloves again, pushing them into the butter in the shape of a cross.
Horseradish (chrzan) - This bitter, strong-tasting root reminds us of the Passion of Christ. It is often made into a spread sweetened with beet juice, with the sweet juice reminding us of the joy of resurrection after the pain of Christ's crucifixion. Growing up, we had our own horseradish, which would have been just starting to grow in the thawing soil, so we would just include a few chunks. Now, if I can't find the root in the grocery store, I include some purchased horseradish paste in a tiny bowl.
Salt (sol) - It's an essential mineral we cannot live without which symbolizes prosperity and justice, and reminds us that we are to be the "salt of the earth". I put some salt in a tiny bowl to tuck into our basket.
Cheese (ser) - We've included a number of different cheeses in our basket over the years, which serve as a symbol of moderation. A small wheel of brie is quite nice. We've also purchased herbed cheese balls in different flavours.
(Photo of the ingredients for our 2012 baskets, including an extra one we made for a friend, plus the variety of dishes, bowls, etc. that we use to hold them.)
Some Non-Food Traditions
Not everything that goes in the basket is food...
A candle - This can be a plain, white taper, and symbolizes Christ as the Light of the World.
Ribbons and greenery - These represent new life and spring—tie some colourful ribbons on the basket handles or tuck sprigs of greenery around.
Wine - Wine has always played a large role in Biblical life (mostly because water was often unsafe to drink, but we won't go there...), so it's appropriate to include a small bottle as well if you've got the room.
A linen cover - Once the basket is assembled it is covered with a fine cloth, usually embroidered. I have a small collection of antique embroidered linens I like to use for this purpose. For the smaller baskets, a small crocheted doily or an embroidered napkin works well, too.
Of course, one of the joys of traditions is making them your own!
With our own Easter baskets, we do include a few chocolate eggs and the odd Easter bunnies. Last year, we included some stuffed olives and olive oil as well. Olives and olive oil were staple foods during the time of Jesus, and the olive tree symbolizes wisdom, peace, hope, light, fertility, health, wealth, and balance.
Feel free to include some new and meaningful items in your own basket as well.
Putting It All Together
Putting our baskets together has always been a process we spread over several days. The eggs are dyed and bread baked on Holy Thursday, and foods are prepared in advance. The baskets are assembled on Saturday morning. First, the largest item—usually the bread—is placed in the prepared basket. The meats are usually the next-largest, and sometimes need to be placed in bowls or on plates, so they go in next along with the cheese. The tiny bowls of salt and butter are tucked in, then all the eggs and smaller items get crowded in. The decorative elements are added last, then the whole thing is covered.
The baskets would be taken in for blessing on Saturday, then it was a waiting game! The food that needed to be refrigerated would be tucked away, but otherwise, it all stayed in the basket. What wonderful anticipation, as we waited until Easter Sunday Morning to eat the contents. We didn't usually eat before going to Easter Mass, and the basket contents would be included with our Easter feast after church. As the food was blessed, we were reminded to cross ourselves before we ate it, and any waste would be burned rather than thrown away.
Today, our basket contents make up our Easter morning breakfast, and there's usually enough to feed us for at least a couple of days!
I hope you enjoy adding this wonderful tradition to your Easter celebrations.
What do you think?
Are you inspired to make a Polish-style Easter basket?
A Meaningful Gift
Share the joy of Easter!
One of the things we enjoy doing is making smaller baskets as gifts for friends. Think of anyone you know who might be ill and can use some cheer, someone who might be a bit short of funds and could use a basket of healthy, wholesome food, someone who is alone for the holidays, etc.
These make a wonderful treat—especially for those who might be stuck eating hospital food! *L*
Blessing of the Baskets
In 2012, we figured out where to go to get our basket blessed locally—the first time since we'd moved to Edmonton. This photo was taken just before the blessing ceremony, and also just before a final rush of people making it in at the last minute to add their baskets. It was standing room only down there (the ceremony was held in the church basement) and filled with people of all ages. There were so many children! It was great! The priest was also very thorough about making sure everyone there and all the baskets were well sprinkled with Holy Water. As we left, more people were starting to file in for the next blessing ceremony. I wonder how many they usually have?
Our 2013 Easter Morning Brunch—Enjoying the Bounty
Our Easter morning brunch is always the highlight of our celebrations. Pictured here is a brunch made from nothing but the contents of our basket.
Bread - Shaped with five woven strips of dough, it was easy to pull apart into manageable pieces, rather than cutting.
Sausage and ham - These are delicious staple ingredients.
Pink Pickled Quail Eggs - These are made using a Pink Pickled Eggs recipe we tried last year. The quail eggs are harder to peel and have a different texture, but they are a nice, bold addition.
Olives - We had olives stuffed with garlic, blue cheese and, new this year, salmon.
Brie - It's a perennial favourite.
Eggs - Our usual types, plus a new experiment; shaving cream dyed eggs.
Marzipan Lamb and rose - Traditionally, butter is shaped into a lamb but this year I bought some marzipan, which my older daughter shaped into this delightful lamb as well as some roses.
Salt - This year, I found red wine salt and black ash salt. The black salt has a much stronger "salty" taste to it!
Butter - It's mixed with garlic and parsley and topped with cloves.
Goat Cheese medallions - A new and very successful experiment, these medallions were preserved in olive oil, herbs, and spices. Delicious!
Mustard with horseradish - Mustard is a new one for us, but we thought it appropriate considering how Jesus used the mustard seed as a metaphor for faith.
Beets with horseradish - This can be used instead of the usual crzan, which is horseradish paste with beet juice, or just use horseradish paste by itself.
Rosemary-infused olive oil and Fig-infused vinegar - We dipped our bread into these and the flavour was amazing! The fig vinegar was much tastier than the balsamic vinegar that is usually used for dipping.
Everything was just amazingly delicious!
Blessing of the Baskets 2013—Swieczonka
I'm glad we left really early to bring our basket for blessing! The church we went to was scheduled to bless baskets from noon to 3 p.m. I took this photo before things got too crowded, so what you see in this photo is about half to two-thirds of how many there were after the final rush of people came in with their baskets. There were also a few empty baskets spread out on the tables where people could leave donations.
We had the most enthusiastically happy priest ever doing the blessing! The room was filled to standing-room-only with many young families and their children—all ages and ethnicities were represented. At the end, when the priest walked around with his assistant, sprinkling Holy Water on all the baskets and the people standing around, he would stop to talk to the children, asking them which baskets were theirs and complimenting them as well as cracking jokes that had the whole room laughing.
When the blessing was over, there was a great rush of people grabbing their baskets and heading out, although many hung around to greet and socialize with loved ones outside the room or stop at the kiosk to purchase some items. Before the table was clear of baskets, more people were already filing in to replace them. Even leaving the church was a challenge, as the parking lot and surrounding streets were filled with cars as more and more people streamed to the church, carrying beautifully decorated and covered baskets.
Clearly, this is a family tradition that is well-loved by many!
Our 2014 Basket
Bread - We weren't able to bake our own bread this year, so we bought an asiago pepper loaf.
Sausage - This is a garlic coil cut in half for space.
Ham - A simple dinner ham, decorated with a cross made with whole cloves.
Chevre de Provence - shaped into balls and marinated in truffle infused olive oil and herbs.
Cheese - Champfleury, an Agropur Signature, Canadian-made cheese.
Olives - Three types of stuffed olives this year; blue cheese, garlic, and tuna.
Salt - Brittany Grey Seas Salt and Red Hawaiian Sea Salt.
Horseradish - A mustard and horseradish blend.
Butter - Garlic sage butter, decorated with a cross in whole cloves.
Eggs - Tea dye, kraszanki and beet pickled.
Olive oil - truffle infused
Vinegar - orange blossum honey balsamic
Marsizpan - lamb and roses
Our 2014 Basket and BlessingClick thumbnail to view full-size
Easter Morning—Our traditional breakfast, using the contents of our basket.Click thumbnail to view full-size
Easter 2015—An Extra-Special Time!
For 2015, my younger daughter and I were able to make the drive out to Manitoba and spend time with our family. We stayed with my father and, while not originally planned, we put together an Easter basket at the last minute.
We took our basket for blessing to one of the two churches my family regularly took our baskets to; the one in my hometown is so small, it's not really used anymore, so mostly we went to St. Micheal's church in Gimli, Manitoba.
We visited my sister during this trip on a day when it suddenly started to snow! She had some horseradish in her garden, so they bundled up in their winter clothes, poked around in the snow until they found the horseradish, and dug up enough for several baskets.
There were some really massive pieces in there!
Going to the church of my youth not only brought back many memories, as well as a part of my childhood that I could share with my daughter, but also gave me the chance to meet up with people I hadn't seen in many years.
On Easter morning, with family coming to visit, we had a lovely breakfast together entirely from the basket.
It was wonderful to be able to share this special time with my family again.