August 08, 2005
Korovai: Traditional Ukrainian Wedding Bread


For his wedding this past weekend, my father asked me to bake him a korovai, the traditional Ukrainian wedding bread. I was not entirely without experience, having helped my mother bake three korovai'i for my brother's wedding last October. But doing it oneself is, of course, an entirely different matter. The most significant difference was that my father, who is becoming in his maturity a bastion of practicality, asked me to make the korovai edible. To you, dear readers, this may seem a simple matter. But alas, when it comes to ceremonial baked goods, the Ukrainian culture tends to prize beauty above all else. It is not uncommon for korovai'i to be hairsprayed, shellacked, and put on display for long after a marriage's dissolution.

I approached the problem by modifying the traditional korovai recipe in the direction of paska, a sweet Easter bread that's often braided and woven in a similar way. My recipe included evaporated milk, butter, and eggs; I also added lemon zest, orange zest, and crystallized ginger for flavor. While improved in the flavor department, the bread was still somewhat dry and cottony. Edible, to be sure, but not quite good enough. Perhaps it would have been better to stick with a pure paska recipe, which I know is delicious but is somewhat more difficult to work.

The decorative birds and branches, however, are almost by definition inedible -- it would be impossible to create these intricate pieces using a dough with any significant amount of moisture. I was pleased with how they turned out, but it's hard to go wrong with decorative birds. In a nod to the significance of the wedding site (the back yard of my father's house in the Catskills), I decorated the korovai with thyme, which grows like a weed in these parts and sends a glorious waft of aroma up from your feet each time you take a step across the lawn.


A brief note on the cultural significance of the korovai: The korovai is viewed as a symbol of the family and community's acceptance of the recently married couple. Traditionally, the korovai is baked communally, by the happily married women of the town. Apparently, the inclusion of unhappily married women (or, presumably, single women and those living in sin) is bad luck. The korovainytsi, or korovai-bakers, gather at the home of the bride's family, each korovainytsia bringing one ingredient - be it flour, eggs, milk, water. Steeped in ritual as this tradition is, the flour is supposed to be from seven mills, the water from seven wells, the milk from seven cows, the eggs from seven chickens. It's apparently also good luck for the korovainytsi to bring vodka to drink during the baking process, though there's no word on whether the liquor need be from seven distilleries.

Reader, I am sure you can imagine the scene -- seven ruddy-faced babushky covered in flour, each clutching a glassful of vodka, singing traditional songs about baking prowess and married life. One of these songs, roughly translated, goes as follows:

Herbs in the garden,
Seeds behind the shed;
And at the bride's home,
Two are about to be wed.

We have flowers for the bouquet,
And all the older cooks we need,
But who will bake the korovai?
And who will drink the mead?

The young women will work the dough and knead;
The old women, they will drink the mead.

There's plenty more songs like this one. Now you understand why the baking takes all night. In any case, on the wedding day, the korovai is cut and shared among the bridal party and wedding guests, as a symbol of communion and welcome.