It might have been that I felt too busy or too virtuous to make them at the time. I do tend to swing pretty hard back and forth from health foods and dairy-less nourishment to devil-may-care cakes and breads and cheeses that ooze in that good way to make me swoon and sigh, and think that life really can be only ever good.
But what is odd is that this year I made the two regardless of circumstance. I had been veritably cuckoo the weeks before Easter, what with another round of single parenting, extra exhaustion from pregnancy, preparing poetry and prose for a half-week-long writer's retreat on the Mendocino coast, and taking on and practicing a few (too many?) readings for the Triduum at my church. Oh, and then the child got sick and the Beloved came home and he was sick, and few days later I succumbed too. We all started the week after Easter clinging to the toilet or the floor or our beds. In the midst of all that, I made the Paska and the kulich. I sneaked in trips to the Co-op for Russian farmer's cheese and white raisins. I went to three. different. stores. for a clean flower pot to drain the cheese into a nice shape. (As if anyone but me would care.) And then, on the very day of Easter, I made it all. (Did I mention I was bed-ridden by the next day?)
The cheese I finally gave away was not the tower of moulded glory it should have been. I smashed it into the cleaned out container from the farmer's cheese. And the bread, well, it kept its shape, but we had to literally pry it out of the coffee tins. And don't even get me started about finding a proper tin (most cheap coffee now comes in plastic tubs). My father-in-law came through with two of his stock-piled 2-gallon tins of cheap, out-of-date coffee from the warehouse where he works. He spreads the grounds unused on his garden.
But I've gotten ahead of myself. The sweet cheese I made is called Paskha (or Paska, Pashka, etc), and the root of this word is the same for the word for Easter in Russian. The cheese is a prominent part of the holiday in most Orthodox Christian cultures and homes. It is served on Easter after that long, rather taxing Lenten fast I've mentioned. It is a festal mix of dairy products, sugar, citrus, egg yolk, almonds, and raisins. The mix is pressed and drained like a moulded ricotta or coeur à la crème in a special Paskha mould or flower pot. The result is a tower of sweet cheese, studded with fruit, thickened with almond and by draining, and flavored with lemon and vanilla. Its shape is supposed to be reminiscent of the tomb where Jesus' body was laid after he died. The mould itself many times produces a relief of the Orthodox cross and other religious symbols, such as the letters XB on it, which stand for the Crillic words for Christ Arose.
The kulich I made is served alongside the Paskha (or is it the other way around?). It stands tall and cylindrical alongside the Paskha. It is much like pannetone, the Italian Christmas fruitbread, and is likewise heavy on the butter and eggs. It is faintly sweet and sports its own suspension of dried and candied fruits. I forgot about it, but the kulich is almost always topped with a sugar glaze, and though it can't possibly be traditional, it is also bedecked with a colorful smattering of candy sprinkles.
The kulich takes some time to make but the Paskha is ridiculously simple. And if I were a little less obsessive I wouldn't have even bothered with the moulds at all. I could have just strained the cheese through cheese cloth in the fridge like I do yogurt. It would have come out domed and looking nothing like the tomb the cheese is supposed to mimic, but it would work. As it turned out, the only flower pot that looked trustworthy was squared-off--the exact shape of the official moulds I have since come to covet.
And the bread. I am partial to the high-sided cylinder, so even though I nearly broke down in sobs in the coffee aisle not willing to pay even eight dollars for crappy coffee and its silly tin, I pulled it together long enough to call my mother-in-law and just make sure they didn't have any tins kicking around. Because they're the kind of people who have those things. And lo! And behold! They did. Otherwise I would have bought the damned coffee anyway and repented of my social sins as I handed over the money, thinking of the beautiful, sweet, tall bread I could make for years for it. There are easier ways though: change the shape, or plan ahead and buy some pannetone papers. Next time.
Regardless of shape or decoration (both which are, as it seems, actually essential), no Orthodox Easter is complete without the cheese and its accompanying kulich. They are brought to the priest to be blessed on Easter and then eaten. Unfortunately, I've never experienced this first hand, except for the making of it all. I would love to hear if some of you are participants in this tradition and can enlighten us all a little more.
I feel a little rebellious about the whole thing now. I didn't keep a true fast. I didn't have the food blessed. I didn't top the bread with prettiness and I didn't decorate the cheese with religious symbols. I didn't even really eat any of it. I had a slice of the bread while I photographed it. I had about a tablespoon of the cheese. But my body is in such upheaval from the busy month that I knew I wouldn't be able to handle much of it--all that dairy.
But again, I made it anyway. This bread is beautiful; the cheese is ridiculous. They are everything Easter is supposed to be--everything you think should be good and yet nothing like you've had before (assuming you've never had it). It is the epitome of the end of a fast and the beginning of a true, high feast. The bread, the eggs, the candied fruit I've been saving since the dead of winter, the sugar. It's all there. And then there is the symbolism--not just the shapes but the giving it all away.
And perhaps my plain Paskha and kulich were perfectly symbolic as themselves. The making of them marked a tentative step towards something wildly and unabashedly religious. Christmas, as I have recently read from a Jewish author, can be explained away as purely pagan and cultural. The Christmas tree. The presents. The stockings. But Easter--God knows it is not my favorite holy day. I prefer Christmas, or better still, Good Friday, the day when the Church remembers the death part of the Christ equation. Easter, however, is a feast day that can't so easily be explained away. Sure, it is mostly pagan in appearance. But in the Church you're supposed to be a little joyful about the whole Jesus-rising-from-the-dead thing. You're supposed to believe it too. It makes me itchy. So to make this Paska and this kulich, unadorned and announced and regardless of how I fell about the whole thing is a little like me right now, coming in the back door of the church, quietly, hoping no one--not even myself--will notice.
Russian Easter Cheese (Paskha)adapted from Saveur
I had so much candied Buddha's hand and lemon that I left out the traditional raisins altogether. I thought the bread's raisins would be enough. Substitute as needed or desired.
1 lb. Russian-style farmer's cheese (I used Belfiore)
4 ounces cream cheese
3/4 cups sugar
3 hard-cooked egg yolks, crumbled
3/4 cups heavy cream
1/3 cup almond flour or ground almonds
1/3 cup candied citrus, mixed (I used buddha's hand and Eureka lemon)
1 vanilla bean
Place the farmers' cheese, cream cheese, sugar, seeds from the vanilla bean, and egg yolks in your food processor and pulse until combined. Add the cream and process until completely smooth. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl and add remaining ingredients. Stir enthusiastically until the mixture is perfectly combined.
Line a 1-quart flower pot or paska mould with a double layer of fine cheese cloth, taking care to fold any excess in a way that won't cause wrinkles in the finished product (like me!), and pressing the cloth into the bottom well if you want the cheese to really take shape of the mould. If using a pot or mould without a base, set the vessel inside a bowl to catch the liquid. Pour the cheese mixture into the lined mould and fold over the top (base of the cheese). Nestle a plate or large lid or some other flat fit-able thing on top of the cheese and put a filled can or jar on top of that to weight it ( I think I used a large jar of honey). Let drain in the refrigerator for 12-24 hours. I let it go the longest time with the weight, and then let it stay in the mould longer unweighted. Don't unmould until ready to serve. When you are ready to serve the cheese, peel back the top folds of cheesecloth and invert the mould onto a plate. Remove mould and cheesecloth. Enjoy!
Russian Easter Bread (Kulich)adapted from Epicurious
Do yourself a favor and get pannetone papers, or proper kulich moulds if you can track them down (I couldn't). They are inexpensive and for such a rare bake, worth it in my opinion. I'll do that next time. Also, I did not add a sufficient amount of fruit in the photographed kulich, so I adjusted the amounts below.
1 cup whole milk
1/2 cup sugar, plus large four-finger pinch
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter
pinch of saffron threads, crumbled
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons cardamom
2 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/4 cup lukewarm water
6 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for kneading
8 egg yolks, plus 1 whole egg
4 ounces sliced almonds (optional)
4-8 ounces golden raisins
4 ounces mixed home-candied citrus peel: lemon, buddha's hand, and/or yuzu
Make the dough:
Heat the milk, butter, saffron, and salt in a saucepan over medium heat, stirring from time to time, until the butter is melted and the sugar dissolved--about 2 minutes. Turn off the heat and cool to lukewarm.
Meanwhile, let big pinch of sugar dissolve in the warm water and then stir in the yeast. Let sit until foamy and obviously active--about five minutes. If the mixture doesn't do anything, throw it out and do it again.
When the milk mixture has cooled to lukewarm, put flour and cardamom in a large bowl, forming a well in the center. Beat the egg yolks a bit and add to the well. Add the milk mixture and the yeast mixture. With a wooden spoon slowly stir the flour into the liquid center. When the dough becomes to thick to stir (do try to do this as long as possible), turn out onto a lightly floured work surface, add the fruit and the nuts (if using) and knead, until smooth, elastic, and "pudgy-looking", about 10 minutes. Add only enough flour to keep the dough from sticking to everything. The fruit and nuts should start to want to fall out more easily.
Put dough in a large oiled bowl, cover with a damp cloth, and set in a warm place to rise until doubled, about 3 hours.
Punch down and let rise again until doubled, about an hour.
Form the loaves:
Line two 2-pound coffee cans with parchment paper, or get out your pannetone moulds and use them. Punch down the dough and divide in two equal pieces. Form into balls and press one ball into the bottom of each tin. Cover the cans with a damp cloth again and return to that warm spot to rise another 1 1/2 hours.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly beat the one egg and brush the top of the loaves. Bake loaves until golden (and gorgeous) on top and the bottom of the bread thumps hollow, about an hour. Turn out onto a rack, and cool completely. Enjoy!