My mother was very parsimonious when it came to cooking with eggs. Clearly, her wartime childhood had affected her. The WWII ration allowance was one fresh egg per week, supplemented with dried egg powder from the USA – which she hated. But old habits die hard; even in her eighties, she would use only one egg to make herself an omelette. If I had ever had the chance to bake her this traditional Polish babka cake for Easter, which uses twelve egg yolks, she would have had a veritable heart attack!
I’m a great fan of Easter. It’s a holiday we always celebrated as a family with chocolate egg hunts for the children and the traditional leg of lamb for Sunday lunch. Over the years, I learned how to blow eggs and each Easter, we would decorate the eggs. It became a family tradition to add names and dates and after twenty years in Wales, we had a large glass vase filled with decorated eggs marking many family gatherings at Easter.
Eggs in their many forms – chocolate, hard-boiled, painted, cooked in giant omelettes, rolled down hills – are inseparable from Easter celebrations, but I’ve never known why. I love all the rituals but, as a child, I could never figure out why bunnies left chocolate eggs in the garden for the Easter egg hunt – it just didn’t make sense to me.
In the interests of historical authenticity, I did some research and discovered that eggs and Easter stories go back in time for thousands of years. Linking eggs to the rites of spring and legends of rebirth is an extremely ancient tradition. The oldest decorated eggs found by archaeologists date back 60,000 years and the Christian tradition of staining eggs red to mark the crucifixion of Christ started in Mesopotamia over 1,700 years ago.
But there are other more practical (but still religious) reasons why eggs feature so strongly in our Easter traditions. Mr. T. is here for Easter and being a Catholic, he is far more knowledgeable about the origins of some of these arcane rituals.
He explained that the reason why Polish babka cake might be made with so many eggs is because it is made on the last day after Lent – Maundy Thursday. While Shrove Tuesday pancakes were made to use up all the eggs before Lent, during the forty days of Lent, eggs would have been off the menu along with meat and dairy products. The problem was that the hens just carried on laying. After forty days of Lent, you have an awful lot of eggs which need using up fairly fast.
So once I knew that, I figured using twelve egg yolks in one Easter cake didn’t seem quite so extravagant after all!
Polish Babka Easter Cake, serves eight. Preparation time – 40 minutes, rising time 5 hours, cooking time 30-35 minutes.
150 gm caster sugar (of which 1.5 tablespoons are used in the yeast mix)
125 gm plain white flour (sifted)
25 gm fresh yeast
65 ml of milk
1 vanilla stick
1 tsp of vanilla extract
50 g butter
You will need a 2 litre fluted cake tin with a hole in the centre.
Start by heating the milk to the point where you can comfortably put your finger in it i.e. warm but not simmering. Pour the warm milk into a jug or bowl. Add 1.5 tablespoons of the sugar and a tablespoon of flour and whisk with a fork. Crumble the fresh yeast into the warm milk, whisk again with a fork then cover with a clean tea towel and leave in a warm place to rise.
Now put the egg yolks, sugar and vanilla extract in a large porcelain pudding bowl, and place over a saucepan of simmering water. Beat with a large balloon whisk until the mixture begins to thicken and become slightly custard-like; this should take about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly. I decanted it into a large mixing bowl to speed up the process and make room for adding the extra ingredients.
Extract the seeds from the vanilla pod by slicing with a sharp knife down the entire length of the pod and scraping out the seeds. (You can keep the pod in a jar of sugar to make vanilla-flavoured sugar for other recipes).
When the yeast mixture has risen, add it to the egg yolk mixture, then add the remaining flour and the vanilla seeds. Beat with a wooden spoon for 10 minutes.
Then melt the butter and when it has cooled slightly, slowly add the butter to the dough mix, stirring all the time, then beat for a further 10 minutes. The resulting dough mix should be smooth and extremely runny. Now cover the bowl with a clean tea towel and set aside in a warm place to increase in size.
Be warned! This can take up to 4-5 hours…. and it won’t rise in the same way as a loaf of bread. Expect it to increase in size and have lots of bubbles in it.
Preheat the oven to 170-180C but if you have a fan oven, which I do, reduce the temperature to around 160-150C. I have to confess that I didn’t and the outside was several shades darker than I’d intended – but the inside was delicious!
In the meantime, you can prepare the cake tin. You will need a circular baking mould with a funnel in the centre which gives you a circular cake with a hole in the middle. They often have fluted sides which are prettier than the plain ones. Grease the tin well with soft butter and sprinkle it with flour so it covers all the surfaces, then turn the tin upside down and tap it to remove the excess flour.
Now pour the cake dough into the tin, level off, and cover again with a cloth and set aside in a warm place to increase in volume. Ideally, keep it as close as possible to the oven so as not to disturb the rising dough when you place it in the oven. Leave to rise for between 40-60 minutes.
Now, very gently place the cake tin in the preheated oven. Keep a close watch and reduce the temperature after 15 minutes by 10C and if necessary, cover the top with some folded aluminium foil. The overall baking time should be 30-35 minutes.
When the cake is ready, remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly before turning out onto a wire rack. Once the cake is cool, you can then finish it off with a glaze of lemon icing.
250 gm icing sugar
Juice of 1 lemon (strained)
Mix the ingredients, beating well with a wooden spoon into a smooth frosting. If it’s too runny, add a little more sugar – if it’s too thick, add a little more lemon juice. It needs to be runny enough to pour over the cake but thick enough to stay on it!
Leave to dry and then it’s ready to serve. As I said, it was slightly overcooked on the outside, so do keep an eye on the temperature, but the golden yeasty sponge was so light and golden that I managed three slices in quick succession – accompanied by a glass of champagne!