While some of you were contemplating the Paschal mysteries this week, I have been contemplating the Paschal cheese. My mother’s family is Slovak and every Easter Sunday we breakfast on a sumptuous cold meal of bread (pascha), hardboiled eggs dyed red with onion skins, butter molded into a lamb, ham and kolbassy, horseradish mixed with pickled beets, and something called hrudka, a delectable eggy cheese-like substance.
If you follow this blog or know me well, you may have noticed that the only thing on the menu I can eat is the horseradish. Not much of a breakfast, is it? In past years, we’ve added Tofurkey kolbassy to the basket for my brother and me, and once we even came up with a seitan-based faux ham. I’m away from home this year, so I decided to come up with some of my own alternatives. I easily found this recipe for vegan challah from Alicia Silverstone’s book, The Kind Life. Since our pascha bread is very similar (if not exactly the same) to Jewish challah bread, I figured that would do. She replaces the egg with a sweet potato! Clever girl. I’m not an experienced bread baker, so if it’s not delicious it’s probably my fault and not Ms. Silverstone’s.
Replacing hardboiled eggs is nearly impossible (I’m open to ideas!), but I do love hrudka, the Easter cheese. This is a strange Slovak tradition that likely stems from the fact that eggs and dairy were once prohibited during the Lenten fast. Thus, there were an awful lot of eggs to use up by the time Easter rolled around. In fact, according to my employer (who is Czech but fluent in Slovak as well), the word hrudka itself means nothing more than “lump.” Now, taking an egg-based dish and making it eggless is no mean feat. To illustrate the challenge I am face with, here’s the original recipe from my great-grandmother
1 qt milk
1 dozen eggs
2 T sugar
2 t salt
Whisk together and then simmer over low heat, stirring frequently until large curds form. Place in cheese cloth and squeeze our excess whey. Weight for several hours. Refrigerate.
I initially thought it would be easiest to try my hand at making tofu, since the methodology is similar. My attempt failed. I only ended up with about half a cup of curds from a half gallon of soymilk! Useless for cheese-making, but the resulting mush was good as faux sour cream on some tacos. I have no one to ask what went wrong, so I scratched that idea off the list. My dear old mom had the idea to crumble some tofu with sugar and nutmeg, then press it back together in a cheese cloth.
So that’s what I did. I also read up on other Eastern European Easter cheeses, the ones that start with farmer’s cheese and add raisins and nuts, figuring that cottage cheese is as much like tofu as scrambled eggs are. Most of those recipes use a few eggs for binding and additional heavy cream. Taking their lead, I combined a few different kinds of tofu: silken, firm, and extra firm. I crumbled them together by hand, adding turmeric for color (I tried saffron, but it wasn’t strong enough). I also put in some coconut oil for richness as well as additional binding. Once I added the nutmeg, salt, and sugar, I tasted it. And I’ll be damned if it didn’t taste just like Mommy’s hrudka!
I also separated part of the mixture and added raisins, currants, and nuts with grated orange peel to attempt the Ukrainian style cheese an old friend’s mother served me for Orthodox Easter many years ago.
So here’s what went into my non-traditional Slovak hrudka:
1 lb extra firm tofu
1 lb firm tofu
1 12 oz package silken tofu
2 T sugar
2 t salt
1 T coconut oil (room temp)
heavy sprinkling of nutmeg
enough turmeric to make it yellow
I drained and then smushed all the tofus together by hand in a big bowl with the salt. I removed about half the mixture to another bowl for my other “cheese.” Then I added the sugar, nutmeg and turmeric and mixed until it was the right color. Finally I added the oil and blended it in with spoon so as not to get all greasy.
Place the cheese in a strainer lined with cheese cloth over a bowl or in the sink. Place a plate on top of it and weight it down with something heavy – a big can, a jar of water, a sack of sugar, etc. Refrigerate the weighted cheese over night. In the morning, remove the weight, untie the cheese cloth, and pour off the liquid from the bowl. It should be firm enough to handle, so you can wrap it up in plastic until you’re ready to eat it.
Admittedly, this is much softer than the original egg-based hrudka. It’s still delicious. The Ukrainian-style “cheese” is more like the original, and is also very yummy. Next Easter, I’m going to try using only extra-firm tofu for the hrudka. Stay tuned!
Does your family have any Easter traditions? Have you made any changes to make them healthier or more convenient? I’d especially love to hear from any readers who also have roots in Eastern Europe!