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12 April 2007 @ 14:02
At church, we were always told that Easter was the most important holiday of the year, more than Christmas. We found this hard to believe: Easter was a miserable time, with the seven weeks of chocolate-free Lent before it, the agony of sitting through Church for most of Holy Week, and no presents. Looking back on Easter, though, a full eight years since my last proper Holy Week, the dread has disappeared. Instead I remember the egg hunts when we would still be finding eggs several months later (this ended when we got a dog and he found all the eggs before we did). Easter baskets: a Cadbury Creme egg for each of us, and a chocolate bunny, jelly beans and mini-eggs. Easter brunch, and usually a ham for Easter dinner. Sunshine, and a new dress and hat when I was very young. But above all of those is babka.

Every Easter, my mum would make babka. Babka is Russian Easter bread: cakey, eggy loaves which rose well above their tins with a crust the colour of toasted coconut. We loved babka and the three loaves which the recipe yielded never lasted more than a few days. My mother ate it plain; I preferred it with just a bit more butter spread on top.

I'm only a quarter Russian: my mother's mother emigrated from Russia in her late teens, following my great-grandfather who left to 'avoid being drafted in one of the many wars', as my grandmother said. My great-grandmother's name was Stella; my great-grandfather was John. I know little more about my Russian roots and other than a love of ice skating, Eastern European food, and the occassional bout of melancholy, I have few connections to the motherland. But babka makes me feel my Russian roots. We use my grandmother's recipe, and when I knead the dough, I think of my Nana following the same recipe, of my Papa eating it. For all I know she could have got it from a magazine in 1952 but I'll prefer to think that she got it from her mother, who brought it with her on the boat.

Babka was made on Easter Saturday, to the sounds of the Messiah on CBC radio and the promise of the Easter vigil that evening. The vigil was like a compendium of all things Catholic: candles, oils, fire, dark, baptisms, confirmations, the Litany of Saints - all rolled into a mere four hour extravaganza. It wasn't until we got home from mass, in the early hours of Easter Sunday morning, that we were allowed to tuck into the babka and the coloured Easter eggs. When we woke up the next morning, we would do it again - bacon, melon, hard boiled eggs and bread. My memories of babka are all laced with tiny fragments of crushed, dyed eggshell on the side of the plate and the bright foil wrappers of chocolate eggs.

My first Easter in Scotland felt empty. With no one to drag me to mass, I only went on Easter Sunday. There was no Easter basket or egg colouring. But I couldn't fathom Easter without babka. I made the bread proudly, and sat in the kitchen smelling it as it cooked. When the tops were golden brown, I tipped the loaves out and cut into them. The bread was rock hard, save for the bit in the very middle that remained raw. I was devastated: my first proper cooking flop, and it was a big one. I tried again the next year, and the same thing happened. I was left with three bricks of bread that clunked on the counter with surprising force. I became convinced that my mother was leaving some secret out so that the only way I would get babka would be if I came home for Easter. This year, I was determined it would work.

I bought new yeast and used self-rising flour. I kept the flat warm and I kneaded the dough extra-long. I covered it in a bowl and waited. And waited. After an hour, I called my mother in Canada and asked her what I was doing wrong. She told me to be patient and let it sit another hour. And lo and behold, in the third hour, it rose. Easter bread indeed.

This year's babka was the best yet but still not perfect. The oven was too hot and the bread was left doughy in the very centre, but I'm getting there. A few more years and I'll be ready. But somehow I doubt even if I do get babka right, it will ever be as good as it was when I was seven, in my Easter dress, eating it with hard-boiled eggs and the promise of chocolate.

Easter Sunday and we've just come home from a trip north. I missed church this year, feeling the good Catholic pangs of guilt as I wandered through a small fishing village in Angus at 3pm on the Friday and passed the churches. I didn't even go Sunday morning. But when we got home at 3, I decided the Easter bread had to be made. It came out of the oven at 7, steaming, golden, and smelling of cake. I let it cool barely long enough to touch and then sliced it open.

Thick wedges of white bread, sprinkled with raisins, sat steaming on my plate. The crust was crumbly, almost salty with the butter that had been brushed over the tops of the loaves. The middle was moist, the raisins swollen. I ate two slices, and then another. It was the taste of home, and even without the egg shells it was pretty good. Not as good as my mother's, but then what is?
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