Love and baking – for me these go hand in hand. The funny thing is, I’m not much of a baker otherwise. Cupcakes once in a while from a box mix, Paska and Babka at Easter, that’s about it. When it comes to baking a Korovai, that is love. Love of the tradition and love of my heritage. My Baba, Malania Hontaryk, taught me how to bake a Korovai. She too loved her work.
As a Ukrainian Folklore student at the University of Alberta in the 90’s, I was required to complete a project on a traditional art form. Some of my colleagues chose pysanky, others dance and others embroidery. I had grown up surrounded by all these art forms but none stood out to me as much as my Baba’s Korovai business. She, along with her buddy Pani Kachmar, were Edmonton’s premier Korovai’nytsi. Busy all wedding season long, they always had one or two in the freezer for those last minute orders. So my choice of project was simple, video Baba making a Korovai, type it up and hand it in. A+ guaranteed! Who knew where that project would take me?
About 10 years later, a dear friend in Toronto, Melanie (same name as Baba, coincidence?) was getting married. “Lisa, would you bake me a Korovai?” Baba was already 90 years old and could no longer bake. So I gave it my best shot. I went to the University of Alberta Kule Folklore Center Archives and watched my Korovai baking video, then set to work. I was pleased with my first Korovai. I showed Baba a picture, she was pleased too. After Mel’s wedding, others started asking. And so began my Korovai business, first in Canada, then in 2002 in the US and in 2016 I had my first International order to Scotland. Last year I baked 50 korovais.
This is how I bake your korovai.
On Sunday, I hand cross-stitch your miniature rushnyk based on colors you choose. The embroidery can be traditional red and black, patriotic blue and yellow, or designed to match your wedding colors. This rushnyk acts as a symbol of the many ritual cloths used in weddings, from those that the bride and groom are married on, those wound around the starosty’s (godparents) arms, or the ones placed on tables as decoration. The pattern I use is from my Baba’s last Korovai, mine. Embroidering the rushnyk usually takes about 2 hours. Sometimes if I am being extremely proactive I remember to take it along with me on road trips, not while I am driving of course. Don’t embroider and drive!
On Monday, I drop my kids off at school, stop by the flower shop to get the myrtle that I ordered ahead of time and begin baking. From about 9 am to 11 pm, my day is all about your Korovai. I gather my bowls, measuring cups and mixers. I gather the ingredients, a lot of times many are Organic as that is what we typically use in our home and of course, the blessed water. The closest Ukrainian church to Casper, Wyoming is in Denver, Colorado, and this is where we go to have our Easter baskets blessed each year. This korovai has already traveled!
The first product is the sponge; this is the living part of the Korovai, kept warm and urged to grow, just like a marriage. While the sponge bubbles, I make the base dough. After about half an hour, they are combined, mixed in my fabulous industrial mixer named ‘Hryts’, and then hand kneaded. By this point I am covered in flour! I take off a good sized chunk, from which the decorations will be formed, then place the rest in a warm oven to rise. The dough has to rise twice, once in the mixing bowl and once in the baking dish. You have to keep an eye on it during the second rising so that it doesn’t overflow the pan; by now with 15 years’ experience, I know when it is ready. Meanwhile, I take that extra chunk, add more flour to it to make it stiffer and let it sit and settle a bit before working it.
Now’s a good time to make the Bird and Pine Cone dough, I’ll need that later tonight. The Birds are doves that represent the couple, family and guests. The pine cones are for good fortune. This dough doesn’t have yeast in it so it’s not as much of a process. Flour, eggs, oil, kneading and it’s done.
While the Korovai is on its final rise, I begin making the decorations from the chunk I took off earlier. The symbols I use are my Baba’s and must have been her Baba’s and so on and so on. They are ancient symbols… braids, swirls, leaves, pine cones, circles that never end – like the marriage. When done, they sit and wait on the counter until joined with the risen bread. But not for long!
The bread has risen to exactly where it needs to be, again I learned through trial and error exactly how high it needs to rise. I don’t post the pictures, as I don't want to scare anyone away, but I have lost a Korovai or two that has outgrown its pan! I can’t leave my house for any of this, tip toeing around, no slamming doors. Silence… well I do have my Ukrainian Korovai playlist in the background, but that only helps it turn out perfectly, right?
I work quickly basting, adding and attaching the decorations. First, the braided wreath around the outside and the nest in the center symbolize life eternal; then the swirls, my favorite which represent the 4 directions and the cross. I pin everything on with toothpicks, gently so the dough doesn’t pop like a balloon, and then baste one more time. As my Baba did, I make the sign of the cross over your Korovai before I close the oven door, to help it turn out fabulously, to rise... but not too much; to bake... but not too dark; and to shine... as much as possible!
Your Korovai bakes for 1 ½ to 2 hours. Humidity, altitude, barometric pressure can all affect yeast, that living component. I have found that not just my eyes tell me when your Korovai is ready, but my nose tells me too. I can smell a perfectly baked Korovai.
Out the magnificent bread comes, I have to time it perfectly, which doesn’t always work, as now it’s around 3:30 pm and I have to run and pick up kids from school. Sometimes on korovai baking days Mama is a wee bit late!
Once it has cooled enough to turn it out of the pan, I place it back in the now warm oven to firm up the crust a bit so it is not so soft. This helps with shipping across the miles to you. As you can tell, baking and decorating a korovai is not a simple, short process. There are so few Korovai’nytsi around because it is very intensive and time consuming. Each Korovai takes 2 days to make, bake and decorate.
Now the Korovai can rest for the evening, but not me yet, because now it’s birdie time. I pull up to the couch with my board. The board wasn’t always mine. My Dido Pavlo Hontaryk did so many wonderful things for Baba. He welded a baking pan for her, used to cut the decorative ribbons AND made her a special baking board. This board has seen so many decorations and varenyky made on it. I wish it could talk!!! These boards were traditional in Ukraine, every woman in the village had her own. It has a lip on 3 sides to keep things contained and one on the bottom so that it can go over top of a TV tray. That board must be over 70 years old.
Rolling, twisting, shaping, basting, and then I pop the small dough birds and pine cones in the oven. While they are baking, I get the ribbons to match your wedding colors ready, sometimes my husband helps, cutting and curling. By 9 o’clock, the birds are ready to fly out of the oven. They are hot to handle but I have to get the toothpicks in them right away while they are still soft. The toothpicks are how I stick them into the Korovai. Gold or silver rings go into 2 doves. These will symbolize you, the bride and the groom, and be placed in the middle of the korovai. Now birds and bread can rest, me too, until tomorrow.
Tuesday morning, I get to assemble and decorate your Korovai. I gather everything I need. I cut up the barvinok (myrtle) into the right sizes, some for the Korovai, in differing lengths for the nest, birds, edging and arch; gather the birds, ribbons, line, needle, rushnyk...did I forget anything?
I start decorating with the center birds, the ones with the rings. They represent you and your new life, it is only fitting they go on the Korovai first. Surrounding you are your friends and family.
After the birds and their celebratory ribbons and greenery, comes the arch. I cut the wire for the arch to size up perfectly over the wedding party on the Korovai. This is the part where I wish I had another arm, I have to hold the wire with my knees while I wrap the clear line around the barvinok stems and wire. It looks pretty silly but it gets the job done! I sew on the rushnyk and then attach the final 2 birds overlooking the party; these are the parents or starosty.
Finally, before it gets boxed, I set up the Korovai on an embroidery cloth and take a picture. Each Korovai is different; they are like a snowflake, a work of art. My heart and my ancestor's souls are poured into each bread. I so appreciate the photos I get back from brides and grooms on their happy day with my ritual bread a part of it. Can you tell I love weddings? I wish I could be present at each and every one! That's an option you know!!!
I package your Korovai up safely; I have never had an issue. Knock on wood! The korovai is wrapped and placed on and around packing peanuts. The arch is wrapped separately and placed in the box, care and display instructions and business cards are in the box too. I check the order form again and throw in a few extra birds, just in case. Some extra peanuts on top, for padding, fold it in, tape it up and off we go on its voyage.
By now it’s about 12:30 pm or so. I usually walk into the UPS store at 1 pm. I place it on the scale; they write me up, “Is this another Wedding bread?” “Yep, this one is going to______?” They kept asking what they looked like, so one day I took one in and packaged it there. They were quite shocked and impressed. I like that they know what is in that box, the more people that know it needs to get to you safely and on time the better! So before it leaves my hands I place my hand on the box and wish it a Щасливої дороги! (Schaslyvoyi Dorohy) – Bon Voyage – Safe Journey!
The Korovai arrives to you safe and sound 2 days later. I have had customers tell me it is the most wonderful smell when they open up that box. If you'd like to know more please read the Testimonials page.
Thank you for reading A Labor of Love, be sure to follow my Social Media accounts @UkrainianKorovai or check out my blog at nazdorovya.com to see what's been baking!