Sunday, April 6, 2008

Korovai: Ukrainian wedding cakes (or more accurately, breads)

As Svitlana knows, I have a minor obsession with baking, and I've been curious about Ukrainian korovai for awhile now. I decided to take this opportunity to find out a little more about this ancient Slavic tradition.

Korovai are intricately designed breads that are baked for and historically have been served at Ukrainian weddings. These days, a simple bread (and perhaps a more modern, Western-style cake) may be served to the happy couple and their guests, and the korovai may be mostly for display purposes. Some couples go so far as to dry out and/or varnish their korovai so that they can display them around their houses for years to come.

As you can see from the photo, korovaii have incredible detail and display many of the same symbols found on the similarly intricate pysanky. The bread itself is made of wheat, and the wreath wrapped around it is typically made of periwinkle, a symbol of love and purity. The bread may also be adorned with berries, flowers, and ribbons. However, what's perhaps most impressive about a korovai are the carefully crafted bread figures that adorn it. Doves represent the couple, and the 'tree of life' in the center of the cake symbolizes the newlyweds' building a nest, in this case, home and and family, together. Other prominent symbols include suns, moons, flags, flowers, and elaborate braiding.

The baking of korovai is perhaps as interesting as the finished result. In the past, an odd number of women (in Eastern Slavic cultures, odd numbers are luckier than even ones, and you shouldn't offer a bouquet containing an even number of flowers unless at a funeral), usually seven, would gather to make the korovai. These korovainytsy would provide the ingredients needed to make the bread: seven eggs, seven cups of flour, water from seven different wells, etc. They'd make the bread together, singing traditional songs that accompanied each step of the baking process.

Ultimately, the korovai is symbolic not only of a new couple united, but a new couple welcomed into a community.


Brittany said...

That is such a cool topic to write about! It is so interesting how women gather to make this Korovai- is the bride included in this baking process or is it a surprise for her? It is incredible how different the cultures are all over the world, yet how symbolic the wedding cake, or bread, is regardless of culture. Thanks for your post!

Scott Strogatz said...

Very interesting. I wonder exactly how common it is nowadays to keep the Korovai on display. I imagine you wouldn't want to put berries on it if that were the case! I also wonder if there are any traditions about the cutting/serving of the cake like we have in American. Very cool topic.

Jessica said...

This is really interesting and after reading your post, I found similarities to the American wedding cake. A lot of couples like to place the little bride and groom figurine people on top of this cake. This reminded me of the doves that you spoke of in your blog. Also, the fact that many couples choose to dry their cake and use it as a piece of decor in later years. In the U.S. it is also popular to save the top half/layer of the cake and freeze it for future memories. Very cool and maybe the U.S. did in fact borrow Ukrainian traditions.

hwangbo said...

What an interesting information and a fabulous picture! I've seen many cake decoration documentaries but I don't think any thing comes close to a decorated Korovai. However, I think what makes the wedding so special is not the decoration but all the effort put in by people...!