Peter Tapsak of the Institute of Catholic Culture — With a Recipe for ‘Hrudka’
‘We bring all of creation into ourselves by eating,’ says Tapsak, ‘and when we give thanks for our food, we are giving thanks to God on behalf of all creation.’
A graduate of Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia, and currently a resident there, Peter Tapsak has lived a life entirely wrapped up in his Catholic faith — and food. Working as the Program Director of the Institute of Catholic Culture (ICC), Tapsak also has a profound and life-long love of cooking and of creating interesting recipes.
“Growing up, food and faith were always intertwined,” he said. “And as far as food goes, my whole family was really into cooking, and cooking was part of our family activities. … My mom did most of the cooking, and preferred to follow recipes to the T, while my dad was more ‘ad hoc’ and experimental. This dynamic is repeated with my wife and me. I tend to be more ‘performative’ and like trying new things. When we have guests, typically I cook and she entertains.”
As Tapsak recalls, his whole family was really, really into food. “A big part of our getting together for holidays is food,” he said. “We cook together, and we eat together. The meal is always the anchor for the holidays.” For him, the big catalyst was working as a dishwasher and chef’s assistant at a little restaurant in Pennsylvania. The restaurant was Old Tioga Farm that served fresh, simple dishes with ingredients from local family-run farms. Working with the chef there really charged Tapsak into the cooking mode.
In the course of his parents’ own reversion to their Catholic faith, they pulled their children out of local public schools to homeschool them, partially motivated by their faith.
“For us, the local schools were terrible,” he said. “My parents thought if they were going to do it themselves, they needed to find a good text for religious education as well. So as we were growing up with the catechism, we were all going deeper into the Catholic faith together as a family.”
As busy as Tapsak is spreading Catholicism through the ICC, he also loves to cook in his time off. “I tend to be recipe-inspired,” he said. “But when I am cooking, I go off-book. I thumb through cookbooks to get ideas for when I do cook, and then often make it up along the way. I like cooking by feel and tasting as I go. That incorporates my senses into the cooking.”
His favorite cuisine is Italian food in general, he said, but because his wife is gluten-free, he tends to only prepare an Italian meal when the couple have guests for dinner. “I like simple dishes that showcase the ingredients,” he said. Indian cuisine is also a favorite of his, particularly because there are many gluten-free and wheat-free dishes.
“These include amazing ingredients,” he said. “Clare and I went to some Indian restaurants where the food was really tasty and they know how to thicken sauces. I have tried one recipe after another and learned about many spice blends. Our key realization was — why focus only on Western cuisine when I can learn so much from other cultures?”
As for his position at the ICC, Tapsak notes that food is really connected to what his job calls him to do.
“Cooking is a huge part of living liturgically,” he said. “We are creatures who eat; that is central to our place in creation and central to our faith. We bring all of creation into ourselves by eating, and when we give thanks for our food, we are giving thanks to God on behalf of all creation — certainly in the Eucharist, but also in all of our meals together. … Putting food and faith together is so important to our community.”
* * * * * * *
Family Recipe: Egg Cheese (“Hrudka”)
“This is a traditional component of a Slovak Easter basket, which gets blessed on Holy Saturday and consumed Easter morning,” says Tapsak.
“In the Christian East, eggs and dairy are not permitted in the fast — so as the chickens and cows start producing eggs and milk in the spring again, they would start to accumulate. We don’t have chickens or cows right now but still make this egg cheese every year, only for Easter — so even though it is simple, it is a defining part of Easter celebrations for us! We eat it for breakfast all of Easter week and it is a ‘taste of the season.’”
- 1/2 gallon whole milk
- 12 eggs
- 1 1/2 teaspoon salt
Combine ingredients in a large pot (use a double boiler if you have one to prevent scorching).
Cook on medium-low, stirring frequently. Solid curds will start to form in the liquid. Once the liquid is clear, take off the heat and pour into a colander lined with cheesecloth.
Gather the ends of the cheesecloth and form into a ball. Place a weight on the ball, still in the colander, and put the colander over a bowl or pot to drain in the refrigerator overnight.
After it has drained, keep it chilled until serving, and serve sliced with sour cream and horseradish.
This recipe is very forgiving, more milk can be added to make it creamier, or less to make it firmer. Up to a cup of sugar can be added to make a sweet version.