Wednesday, March 5, 2008

A New Craft: Ukrainian Easter Eggs


As has been the usual case the past month or two, the weather is quite awful. We had sixty degree temperatures Monday and I had to work, of course. Luckily, the basement did not flood because of rapid melting. You know it’s wet when you live at the very top of a hill and your basement floods. This time the garage flooded. Twice. And there was another ice storm. Now, we’re having high winds and snow with ice all over everything. The township truck actually came through really dumping cinder. Usually, they don't put a lot down, but today they're not fooling around.

We did manage to get one tree cut on Sunday and spent a couple of days moving wood into the basement to dry. We haven’t been able to switch over from the propane furnace, however, but looking at the weather for the next week or so, it looks like we’ll have plenty of opportunity to get one going. Unfortunately, my almanac/calendar does not have any fair weather posted until the last week of the month. March did come in like a lamb, though, white and fluffy with the worst snow and deepest drifts so far this year!

When things are horrible outside, though, there’s nothing like starting a new craft. I wanted originally to try and sew some cute clothes for my nieces for spring, but my good sewing scissors are currently misplaced. So I’m also not able to work on the quilt I promised my sister ages ago, as well. I suppose I could do more of the actual quilting on my own quilt that has been held up for a while. You don’t need sharp scissors to cut thread, but I was looking for something fun to do, and that quilt has been really boring for me!.

Luckily, I was at my grandmother’s house the other day, and I got to looking at her collection of pysanky. Yes, I am Ukrainian. And Irish. It’s why I’m always right. My grandmother doesn’t really do eggs anymore, but she always made nice ones the whole time I was growing up, and one of my aunts does them, and she’s a real artist. Everyone in the family has at least played around with making them, but I decided that I would try a new craft this week and actually work on getting good at making Ukrainian Easter eggs.

Luckily, I dont’ have to start from scratch, and I was able to borrow everything from the stylus to the dyes from my grandmother. She has a plug-in stylus which is really nice because you don’t have to stop and fire it. She also has a great book called “Eggs Beautiful” by three Ukrainian ladies and published by the Ukrainian gift shop in Minneapolis. It has step-by step instructions for making eggs which are done kind of like batik with melted beeswax that comes out of a little “pen”. There are wonderful diagrams of each step and what order to put them in the dye.

Just because these little mysteries are clarified does not solve every problem. The eggs are curved, and you have to work hard to make even lines and keep things neat. A lit of it is feel and guessing. You need to kind of brush your finger over the surface of the egg to make sure you have the dye in the right place, and once you mess up, you can’t really “erase” or go over it.

So, I followed the directions for the first egg, and the picture is of my egg, on the right and one of my aunt’s eggs on the left. Someday, I hope to have that steady a hand. I have been practicing, and trying a few different styles of the easier step-by-step eggs, but I haven’t bothered finishing any of them since they were just practice.

A few things it is nice to know about making Ukrainian Easter Eggs:

1. Dyes: Obviously dark black is not a typical egg dye color. I made up a few dye colors with special powdered dyes I got from my grandmother who must have mailed away for them or gotten them at a Ukrainian store. I guess she went to one last year when she was in Chicago. With the internet, finding all of these things is a lot easier than it used to be! Some of my dyes are regular old liquid food coloring, though. I followed the instructions to make concentrated egg dyes right on the box, and they work quite well, even if the really dark colors are not available. Put dyes in old pint jars and put the lids on. You can save the dyes and use them for many many dozen eggs before you need to replace them.

2. Stylus: this is the little pen that puts the wax on the eggs. Again, the best place t find one would be a Ukrainian store. Though I have seen the ones you heat with a candle just at regular craft stores before.

3. The wax: the wax has to be beeswax. I get beeswax usually directly from “bee people.” I suppose they have beeswax in craft stores, too. Before quilting thread was polyester coated, you used to have to run it through beeswax to get it slippery enough to pull through layers of batting and cloth, so they still sell small lumps of it in the sewing stores, too. I use it for waxing up the drive cord on my spinning wheel to keep it from sliding on the whorls. Apparently, the high melting temperature of beeswax is just right for making eggs (or anything else with resist dying) because the warmth of your hand won’t melt the wax once it’s on the eggs and make smudges!

4. Eggs: You do not need to drill a hole in the egg and “blow it out.” I’m not sure where the idea came from, but it’s not a good idea. You need to have something in the egg while you’re working on it or the shell will crack. A long time ago, I remember my grandfather getting it into his bean that he would drill a hole in the end of a finished egg and blow it out like people say to do. To get the insides out of the egg, you need to drill to holes in your beautiful finished egg, and “blowing it out” is hard. Don’t do it! All you have to do is wait, and the insides of the egg will go away on their own. If you’re afraid of cracking the egg and having it smell rotten, that is good motivation to not handle the eggs in the first place.

5. Finishing the eggs. “Eggs Beautiful” recommends dipping the eggs in varnish. I’m not sure that we have had good results with that. It doesn’t stop the eggs from drying out, but it does add to the steps you need to do it and also gives you the risk of having discoloration because of the finish. Maybe some of the newer water based polyurethanes are okay for this, but we have never put coating or finish on the eggs.

Now, I wanted to try more eggs, but I already used up all the eggs in the carton! Some of them I dyed and other I just drew on with pencil and others I just drew on with the wax to practice. To get rid of the eggs (and some milk I’ve had since Sunday without opening) I decided to make pumpkin pie. It was kind of fun to crack the squiggled and dyed expirimental eggs into the bowl!

In northwest PA and western New York State, we get Lakeshore Pumpkin which is really great, really deep orange fresh smelling pumpkin that is packaged in Buffalo with no preservatives or anything like that in it. Every fall, giant displays of Lakeshore Pumpkin are set out in the grocery stores. I usually buy about five or six cans of it, and one can makes two pies. It gets harder to find as the winter goes on and almost impossible in summer.

Now, on the cans of the pumpkin is this recipe, so even if you can’t get that kind of pumpkin, it’s still the best recipe:

Lakeshore Pumpkin Pie Recipe

for two 9 inch pies

Make a hot oven: 400 degrees.

Put the crust in the pies -- don’t bake before filling!

Mix together:

4 eggs
1 can pumpkin (29 oz/822 gram)
1 1/2 cup sugar
2 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. ginger
1 tsp. allspice
2 cups milk

Bake for 45-50 minutes. It’s done when you can stick a knife in halfway between the center and the crust and the knife comes out clean.

Okay. It usually takes me closer to an hour to get them all the way baked, but that’s just me! Also, I’ve been substituting raw sugar for white sugar, and it’s been delicious. But I don’t recommend doing it unless you can buy raw sugar in bulk or it will be too expensive. And to make it really good, it has to be whole milk. Never bake with skim or two per cent. Your baking needs fat to stand up and stick together. Needless to say, you don't use premade pie crust in my family. My sister did it once, and was badly teased by about three generations worth of pie makers. She is now an expert pie crust baker and her pies are hits in both her workplace and her husband's. I know a lot of people like the really creamy, custardy pies with condensed milk and all that, but this is just the best pumpkin pie ever. Really.

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