And now for our next episode of Cooking with Joe: old fashioned Easter eggs.
Both sets of my grandparents immigrated to the US a long time ago. One side came from Poland, the other from Czechoslovakia. None of them ever learned English, and all passed away when I was pretty young. But they did pass on some traditions to their kids, and my mother likewise demonstrated some for us, and I get to move them on down the line to you. Most of the things I remember dealt with food, and my memories probably tie in with the fact that there are few gourmet Polish restaurants. There are a few things she made that were pretty good, like the creamed chicken or nut cakes, but this time of year I think more of the eggs.
We are coming up on Easter, and for some reason that holiday is associated with decorated eggs. All the grocery stores have big displays of candy and baskets and chocolate rabbits, but at one time the big push was for egg decorating kits, with different colored dyes and stickers and paper cutouts. Eggs seem to be a religious symbol for rebirth and new life, celebrating the arrival of Spring and the change from cold grey/white winter into colorful flowers and green growth. My mother used to decorate eggs for Easter, at one time she used to do the fancy decorations called Pysanky
These creations take a long time to make, but I guess back before television and computers people used to do lots of crafty things to fill the time. It’s been a while since I’ve seen anyone hand quilting or knitting clothes. But the process for making these eggs was not complicated, all it took was some wax (bee wax was preferred), a cork, a needle and some dyes. The wax was melted over a candle in a little metal tray; the lid from a bottle was common. A needle was pushed into a cork, making an easy to hold handle. The head of the needle would be dipped into the wax and a pattern drawn on the egg with the liquid wax. As the needle didn’t hold much, and the wax would quickly harden, it took a lot of dipping and drawing to make the pattern. This first pattern went over the white egg. The egg was then placed into a light colored dye (usually yellow), and the area under the wax would stay protected and white. A new pattern would then be put on the egg after it dried, on the yellow areas. The egg would be dyed again with a little darker dye, in this picture probably the red. The area covered by the second pattern would be protected and stay yellow. After the egg dried another pattern was drawn, and another dye used. This pattern would protect the red areas. This process would proceed through however many dyes were available, usually just the yellow, red and a black. Some of the eggs in the above photo also have some green, but I don’t remember that color being used. After all was done a warm cloth would be used to polish the egg, melting the wax off and leaving a shiny protective coat. As the dyes usually had to be dissolved in hot water the eggs were hard boiled by the end of the process. They would last a few days, and end up being cracked and eaten on Easter. I remember a lot of egg sandwhiches.
Ann mentioned the option of emptying the eggs first, so that they could become more permanent. My mother did do that at times - you take a sharp knife and make little holes in each end of the raw egg, and blow really hard in one hole to force the insides out. You can then make scrambled eggs with the output. Rinse out the empty egg shell with a little vinegar and water. The result is a nice shell that will keep for a long time without rotting and smelling. The empty egg shells are a little harder to dye, as they float and must be held under the dye water with a spoon or something as they color up. Thanks for the reminder Ann.
We had our kids do a somewhat easier version of this, using crayons to draw pictures on the eggs and then put them in succeeding Paas egg dyes - the brand was popular back east. The whole process of the needle and melted wax seemed too time consuming for me, for an item that was so transitory. An easier way of decorating eggs that didn’t use wax and multiple applications of dyes was also used. This involved onion skins and only one boiling. That’s what I’ll demonstrate here.
What you’ll need are some eggs, the outside skin from a lot of onions (and garlic if available), some cloth (cheese cloth was traditional, but I used some old cotton t-shirts), thread and some green leaves. We don’t use many onions around here, so I started collecting the colored dry layer of skins from the outside of the onions for several months, putting them in an open plastic bag as the onions were used. You just want the dry outer layer of the onions, what you would normally take off before using them anyway. Just peel off and save the dry layer, don't try to peel off and save too much as the wet layers don't have much color.
First you cut up the skins into little confetti pieces. It’s easiest to leave the skins in the bag and just keep snipping them with scissors for a while until there are no big pieces left. This is fun for kids (using blunt scissors).
You then put a layer of skins on a piece of cloth (about six inches or so square). Wet an egg and stick some leaves on; fancy patterned leaves work best like ferns or small celery leaves. The places where these leaves are stuck on will stay white, kind of how the wax kept areas white from the dyes. Then put the egg on top of the pile of onion skins and put more on top, surrounding the egg. Pull up the corners of the cloth so that you have a nice tight package and use the string to tie the top up. (sorry, didn’t take a photo of the little tied packages.)
Put these in a pot, fill with water, and put the pot on the stove to gently boil. I boiled mine for about fifteen minutes; you just want to make sure you end up with hard boiled eggs at the end, however long you usually do it for. You can also put some extra eggs into the pot to boil along with the packages; these will come out an even brown color. After fifteen minutes take the little packages out of the pot and put them in some cold water for a few minutes, until they are cool enough to handle. Then just snip the string to open the packages, wash off the onion skins and you’ll have some speckled eggs.
The boiling water will pull some brown colors out of the onion skins, and the different colored onion skin pieces will impart different shades onto the egg shell. If you stuck on some leaves those areas will stay white, and you will end up with some patterned hard boiled eggs. Yes, I know, not pretty pink and yellow and red and blue, but it is a project you can do with the kids that doesn’t take much money and you will end up with the makings of some egg salad sandwiches after all.