A family Easter food tradition: 'A bridge to the past'

YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER The hands of tradition: Jim and Kelsey Bezila work together on a delicious treat and a piece of history, past and future.
YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER The hands of tradition: Jim and Kelsey Bezila work together on a delicious treat and a piece of history, past and future.
Posted: March 21, 2013

KELSEY BEZILA likes to say she's been cooking with her father, Jim, ever since she could tell the difference between brown sugar and white sugar - probably when she was about 5.

Now that she's in college, her spring-break visits to the family home in Mount Ephraim, N.J., include preparing the traditional Easter dishes of her father's childhood. (Easter is March 31.) While Kelsey never got to cook much with her paternal grandmother, Jim is making sure that the family recipes get passed down.

"I started cooking about 10 years after I left home," said Jim. "My mother always said I had better learn how to cook some of the Polish and Slovac dishes I grew up on, because I might not marry someone who could."

His cookbook collection includes a favorite of his mother's, a community-recipe book put out by St. Mary Byzantine Catholic Church, his grandmother's church in Johnstown, Pa. He also has recipes in his mother's own handwriting that she collected over the years.

Jim's siblings also work to carry on the family traditions, and will often call each other to check on a technique. The first time he made pierogies from his mother's handwritten recipe, Jim realized that she hadn't listed amounts for the potatoes or cottage cheese.

Fortunately, his sister knew and could also explain how the dough feels when it is the correct thickness. She had some rolling tips as well.

Jim also brings his sensibilities as a nuclear engineer (he works for Peco Energy) to the kitchen. "I have the patience to cook," he said. "You just execute what is in front of you and what the recipe tells you to do."

He added, "It's all about practice and attention to detail. You have to have a memory of what went right or wrong from the last time you cooked a dish."

Jim also believes in taking time as he cooks, so he makes sure that he has three to four hours reserved in the kitchen uninterrupted. "Cooking is not the time to multitask," he said.

He also keeps an eye on health.

"We have these rich Eastern European dishes only two or three times a year. And there's no such thing as a healthy meatball that tastes good," he said. "But when you save them for holidays and special occasions, you really look forward to them."

Jim admitted that liking to cook and watching one's weight is a struggle. He goes to the gym at least three times a week and, other than the occasional splurge, he watches what he eats and uses portion control.

Now that Jim has mastered his family recipes, he's working on re-creating his wife's Italian heirloom recipes so that Kelsey will also have those. Last summer, the two of them took a cooking class together, and they are always open to trying something new.

Said Kelsey, "Cooking is one of my passions, and I absolutely want to pass this appreciation and understanding to my future children. This is a bridge to the past."

During Kelsey's most recent trip home, apple pie was on the "to-bake" list, as was crab-stuffed flounder. The big task, though, was making poppy-seed and nut rolls for Easter. Other traditions that will find their way onto the Easter table are stuffed cabbage and a homemade cheese called hrutka.

Although it is somewhat sweet, the cheese is served as a condiment along with the main dishes. It bears a resemblance to Italian basket cheese or Russian paska cheese, both Easter traditions as well.

These rolls are always present at Christmas and Easter. Jim Bezila says that the dough can accommodate all kinds of fillings. This year,he experimented with apricot, but the poppy-seed and nut versions are a must-have on the table.

HOLIDAY POPPY-SEED ROLLS

6 to 7 cups unsifted flour

3 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon salt

2 packages active dry yeast

1 cup sour cream

1 cup margarine

1/2 cup water

3 eggs, room temperature

4 10-ounce jars poppy-seed filling

In a large bowl, thoroughly mix 2 cups flour, sugar, salt and undissolved yeast.

Combine sour cream, water and margarine in a saucepan and heat over low heat until liquids are very warm (120 to 130 degrees). The margarine does not need to melt.

Gradually add warm mixture to dry ingredients with an electric mixer, beat for 2 minutes on medium speed, scraping bowl occasionally. Blend in eggs and 1 cup flour. Stir in enough additional flour to make a soft dough.

Turn out onto a lightly floured board and knead a few times to form a ball. Cover, and allow to rest for 10 minutes.

Divide dough into four equal pieces. Roll each piece out into a 12-by-14-inch rectangle.

Spread a jar of poppy-seed filling on each piece and roll up on the long side to make a log. Seal edges.

Place on greased baking sheets, seam-side down. Cover and let rise in warm place, free from draft, until doubled in bulk, about an hour.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake for 35 minutes or until rolls are cooked through and browned. Remove from baking sheets and cool on wire racks.

Brush tops with some melted margarine. Makes four rolls that cut into 18 servings per roll.

NOTE: To make nut rolls, replace poppy-seed filling with this nut filling.

NUT FILLING

2 pounds shelled walnuts

1 1/2 cups milk

1 1/2 cups sugar

1 tablespoon melted butter

1 egg, reserved for later use

Grind walnuts fine with a grinder or food processor.

In a saucepan, combine walnuts and milk in pot and heat over low heat. Add sugar and butter.

Cook, stirring occasionally and taking care not to let mixture burn.

Allow mixture to cool to room temperature. Blend in egg. Spread on prepared dough and bake as instructed.

Makes enough filling for 4 rolls, with some extra.

HOLUPKI

(Stuffed cabbage)

12 large cabbage leaves

1 pound ground beef

1 cup undercooked rice (cook for 15 minutes, not 20)

2 tablespoons finely chopped onion

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1 egg

1 teaspoon salt

One 15-ounce can crushed tomatoes

One 15-ounce can sauerkraut (more, if desired)

1/4 cup water or as needed

Blanch cabbage leaves in boiling, salted water for 2 minutes. Drain.

In a large bowl, combine ground beef, rice, onion, pepper, egg and salt. Place a 12th of the mixture on the end of the cabbage leaf. Roll, tucking in ends, and place in a large pot coated with a little oil.

Repeat with each leaf, stacking the rolls if necessary. Add tomatoes and sauerkraut.

Cover pot, bring to a boil, then simmer for an hour to 90 minutes, or until leaves are cooked through and the sauce is thickened. Check every so often and add water if necessary. Makes 12 holupki, or six servings.


SOURCE: The recipe files of Jim Bezila's mother, Frances Bezila.

This recipe is one of Kelsey Bezila's favorites from childhood. It is traditionally served as a condiment to the Easter dinner.

This recipe makes a ball about the size of a grapefruit that is sliced and served with salt and a dab of plain horseradish. The hrutka can be rubbed with butter and baked in a hot oven for about 10 minutes before serving.

HRUTKA

(Easter cheese)

6 eggs

2 cups milk

1 1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 tablespoons sugar

1/4 teaspoon vanilla

Combine all ingredients in double boiler and cook slowly until eggs coagulate.

Line a colander with a large piece of cheesecloth; pour mixture in and allow to drain.

Tie cheesecloth into a tight ball and hang for 3 hours in a cool place. Remove cheese cloth and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for up to seven days. Makes 12 servings.


SOURCE: The recipe files of Jim Bezila's grandmother, Mary Bezilla, who was a good cook and spelled her name with two L's.


Lari Robling is the author of the cookbook Endangered Recipes: Too Good to Be Forgotten. Nothing makes her happier than championing the home cook. Follow her on Twitter @larirobling.

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