Catholic Chef Helena Piot-Syska — With a Recipe for Fruit Soup, Polish Style
“I ask St. Martha to work her charm and leave it at that,” she says.
Raised in a Catholic family with roots in Poland and China, then migrating to the United States via Brazil in the 1950s, Helena Piot-Syska now lives in Northern Virginia. The oldest of five daughters, she was initially enrolled in a public school in Arlington, Virginia, for first grade.
Her mother, the family’s only English speaker at the time, was happy to learn of a nearby Catholic church and school, St. Charles Borromeo, and registered her daughter there. As the family grew, the other children were enrolled as well. Helena remembered that the Benedictine Sisters at St. Charles lived what they taught — kindness and understanding. In fact, after Helena’s father started a local bakery, at the end of each Saturday, Helena and her father would deliver freshly-baked pies to the Sisters, who were so happy to receive them.
“My mother was very Catholic,” she said. “We participated at Mass at St. Charles. Once a month we visited the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., where my mother sang in the choir for the Polish Masses in the beautiful crypt church.” She remembered her mother carrying a tapestry bag with her holding her rosary of black beads from China, a black mantilla veil, a handkerchief with embroidered flowers, and her lipstick and rouge.
Looking back over her Catholic life, Helena noted her lifelong food passion came from two sources: her aunt and her father. “My aunt, who lived with and helped my mother take care of us, ruled the home kitchen,” she said. “and I was not allowed to go near the stove. She was queen of the kitchen! She would make pickled pigs’ feet, Polish pickles, a salad we all referred to as Aunt Cesia’s Pink Salad, which years later I learned from Russian friends is similar to their Russian salad, Olivier.”
Her second cooking site was her father’s bakery. Her culinary training became ingrained when she was working with her parents and sisters at the bakery. “I started when I was seven,” she said. “I had to put together boxes for the cakes and pies, eclairs and Napoleons, and know how to use the bread slicer. … All of us participated in the life of the bakery. It was, literally, our bread and butter. It experienced two major fires, then the business expanded to catering and the shop size doubled, then quadrupled with a delicatessen and an international food section.”
Helena added that her mother, who loved cooking, taught her other basic skills. “My absolute favorite work was learning from my mother how to make elegant hors d’oeuvres, tea sandwiches and deviled eggs,” she said. “As soon as I learned how to use a pastry bag, that was my job, plus serving customers,” she said. “By high school, I knew more about gourmet foods than most adults.
As she noted, the catering business was top-rated in the Washington, D.C., area, serving many members of Congress and their spouses. “We met many interesting people,” she said, “including politicians and their spouses, such as U.S. Senator John Warner and his then-wife the actress Elizabeth Taylor. I was an observer of food and people.”
Now years later, married and having raised five children, working full-time and volunteering, Helena always wanted to cook for the family. Looking back over her Polish food life, she believes the recipe that challenges her the most is making golabki, stuffed Polish cabbage. “It is a difficult recipe for me because I want superb consistency,” she said, “and I still try to match the exact taste and aroma I remember as a child. It was perfect!” Helena said she works very slowly making the recipe, methodically cooking the cabbage leaves, mixing the filling and making the sauce, before putting the pan in the oven. “Then I ask St. Martha to work her charm and leave it at that,” she said. “I want it to be perfect for whomever enjoys it.”
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Recipe: Cold Fruit Soup
Cold fruit soups are a Polish favorite. They can be served any time of the day — breakfast, a mid-morning or afternoon snack, a light first course to dinner, or for dessert. Pears have a lovely, mild sweet taste and are perfect for cold soup. There are many varieties, each imparting a unique flavor, which are ideal for this recipe.
- 9 ripe pears, any type, skin on
- 2 cups water
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup butter
- 2 cups pear nectar, such as the Goya brand
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 1 cup half-and-half
- 2 teaspoons ground ginger
- Crushed nuts, garnish
- Fresh berries, garnish
- Minced dried apricots, garnish
Use an apple corer or slicer to cut up the pears. In a large pot, add the pears, water, sugar and butter, and cook over medium heat until the pears are tender and fall apart.
Remove from the stove, cook, then purée the mixture in a blender until smooth, velvety and with no chunks. To the purée, add the pear nectar, buttermilk, half-and-half and ground ginger. Pour into a bowl or pitcher. Refrigerate until very cold.
Serve in a bowl and garnish with crushed nuts, fresh berries and minced dried apricots.