Awaiting the grand reveal: Ukrainian egg making 2013

When Jen brought forward the idea of decorating Ukrainian eggs this past weekend, I jumped at the opportunity.

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I don’t know if it’s just me and my friends, it seems as though many people have had exposure to Ukrainian egg painting at some point in their lives. For me, it was in either grade two or three, when I was living in Sudbury the first time around. My mom and I made a set of three eggs on a mother-daughter craft date. The details of the actual painting aren’t too clear in my mind, but I do know the legacy of those eggs live on. Up until this past week, the eggs were sitting in the display cabinet in my parent’s dining room. Because you don’t empty the contents of the egg prior to painting (the membrane serves as insulation, otherwise the empty shell would become too hot and delicate when you burn off the wax with a candle) they have to be rotated every few weeks until everything dries up inside. Two of the eggs my mom and I painted a decade-and-a-half ago are still going through this drying process, and she has recently taken them out of the cabinet in hopes they’ll receive benefit from better air circulation on the kitchen window sill.

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The original Ukrainian eggs made by Hilary and mom. Bunny ears courtesy of dad.

My egg painting outing this time around was with Jen, and our other friend and colleague, Martha. It was at the Ukrainian Seniors’ Centre in Sudbury. We entered the room where, over the next two hours, a set of medium eggs would be transformed into an intricate display of layered dyes.

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Most of the people attending the workshop were presumably mothers on a  Saturday morning outing with their kids. Jen, Martha, and I look as though we could be anywhere between the ages of 16 and 30, so the two older ladies running the workshop earmarked us as high school students, an assumption likely confirmed as we rebelliously displayed our “free-spirited” egg design techniques over the next two hours.

The entrance of the seniors centre had a map of Ukraine with eggs painted in the style of the region; an Ophelia-esque flower crown, dye from 1997 (!!)
The entrance of the seniors centre had a map of Ukraine with eggs painted in the style of each region; an Ophelia-esque flower crown, dye from 1997 (!!)

The purpose of the workshop was to create the traditional “pysanka” style of Ukrainian eggs. Traditionally, the labrynth-like design was used to trap evil spirits as they penetrated a household. The design relies on the use of symmetry and quadrants and involves the use of a “kystka,” a copper funnel tool you heat in order to melt beeswax, which is then drawn onto the surface of the egg. Using the kystka is a lot of fun, and I love watching the funnelled edge gobble up the freshly melted wax.

The basis of the pysanka design, which was first drawn on in pencil. Traditionally the "arrows" you see on the lines are supposed to be pussy willows, which replace palms on Palm Sunday
The basis of the pysanka design, which was first drawn on in pencil. Traditionally the “arrows” you see on the lines are supposed to be pussy willows, which replace palms on Palm Sunday

The steps of creating a pysanka were extensively detailed in an instruction book the three of us got when we started the workshop. As you can see from the final photos at the bottom of this post, I think our eggs all captured the gist of the traditional style. They do, however, have their own signature – something that makes each distinguishable from the next. This creativity, we discovered, was not in the spirit of what the ladies running the workshop wanted. They were very sweet and well-intentioned, however they did not want us to express any of our personality on the eggs. I understand – traditional Ukrainian motifs should be respected – but we were not treading so far off the path as to dishonour that tradition. We were simply adding wheat where there should have been pussy willows, and additional green dye where there should have been black. Because much of the religious significance is lost on my agnostic-self, I didn’t feel the need to conform with the Christian symbolism. This led to a bit of backseat egg decorating. I’ll leave it at that.

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In the end, I think the two ladies running the workshop were relieved to see our eggs still resembled the traditional pysanka, and that we had some level of competence that was formally doubted. Of course, the workshop facilitators are very talented and experienced egg designers themselves, and created such beauties as these beaded designs:

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The workshop was tonnes of fun and I learned a lot – not only about how to design more Ukrainian eggs in the future, but also about Ukrainian culture and tradition.

In terms of how to create the actual pysanka design, here’s how that worked: The egg is separated into different sections – split vertically à la Greenwich Meridian and horizontally à la equator. That centre point is then intersected diagonally across the egg to create a series of eight triangles in each quadrant on either side of the egg.

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At the top of this photo is the beeswax block used to dip the krystka in. The smell of beeswax reminds me of the mom, who used to make beeswax candles with sheets of wax bought at a flea market north of New Liskeard, Ont.

From there, an eight-pointed star is added on each side to represent the sun god (or Christ, following the advent of Christianity in Ukraine), and other flourishes are added as well. Dye-wise, you dip from lightest colour (yellow) to the darkest (black). The areas you cover in beeswax with the kystka will be immune to the next shade of dye, thereby allowing you to dip the egg in its entirety, while only colouring it in parts. At the end, you burn off the wax using the side of a candle flame, and gingerly wipe the glossy melted bits for the grand reveal. It’s all very exciting, and after two hours of covering the egg in wax and dye, it’s rewarding the see your handiwork transform into a beautiful pysanka.

The same, but different. Jen's egg, mine, and Martha's
The same, but different. Jen’s egg, mine, and Martha’s

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Godzilla Peep Cupcakes

Yeah, yeah, it’s been awhile since I last blogged… I’ll resume my regular obsessive blogging back in Ottawa next week!

Okay:

I don’t think I need to explain my love of holiday-themed baking to anyone.

Past festivities have witnessed me creating a wide variety of awesome baked goods and desserts, be it homemade maple leaf chocolates, painfully difficult-to-decorate Christmas tree cake pops, or fuchsia Valentine’s Day cookies coloured with pureed beets.

This was my blog’s first Easter.

After scrapping my original idea to bake the nirvana of all Easter chocolate – Cadbury Creme Eggs (see example here) – into my cupcakes (my excuse: those things cost like, $1.25 a piece, and I’m kind of broke…), I settled on a more low key plan.

I’m staying with my aunt in Toronto right now, and since she doesn’t really bake, I had to buy a lot of the dessert-making necessities.  This purchasing saw a small bag of cake flour explode on my black jacket last Wednesday and several declarations of frustration silently aimed at the convenience store clerk, after his shop failed to sell mini eggs.

The end result was these Godzilla Peep Cupcakes.

My co-worker Ron instagram-ed the hell out of these cupcakes.

In case you can’t tell, the chocolate icing (which was piped out using a freezer-sized Ziploc bag, go improvisation!) is supposed to resemble a nest.

I initially failed to realize how huge the peeps were, and so the cute marshmallow candies ended up looking like giants.  They were so awkward looking that they needed a mention in the title of this post.

The cupcakes were infused with lemon zest, and were perfectly baked in my aunt’s normal person oven (which preheats at an Olympic speed, I was very impressed).  Our student home oven would have created golden brown welts and a crispy bottom.  God I love real person kitchen appliances.

I brought these into the National Post newsroom last Thursday – thus marking the restart of my “baking for colleagues tradition” just in time for the summer months.

I officially declare the dessert-carrying-on-bicycle season open!

PS: These cupcakes endured an hour-long TTC communte.  I only dropped them once.
PPS: I made a mini cake for my aunt and uncle, since it would be unfair to take everything into the newsroom.  The peep-to-cake ratio was a little less ridiculous on their dessert.

The mini cake I left for my aunt and uncle at home