When I left my family’s church, I wasn’t really leaving much in the way of holiday food traditions. It was a fairly standard Protestant-based religion, and festive days such as Easter were observed simply, with understated prayers and overcooked meats. A few years later I met my soon-to-be life partner, a Russian-American with a sternly Orthodox father. Amazingly, her family took me to church once or twice, and it was there that I found a whole new way of celebrating the season: chanting, incense, drinking, and paskha.
Paskha is the name for Orthodox Easter, which falls two weeks after the Western holiday. Paskha is also the sweet, creamy, cheesy spread that Orthodox Russians whip up to help break Lent. Now, people generally understand Lent to be a ritual of great self-sacrifice—my girlfriend remembers giving up TV for Lent one year—but it doesn’t have to be. There is no Lenten prohibition against caviar, for example, or smoked salmon. Still, every ritual calls for release, and paskha is perfectly suited for the purpose. The only way to get more release from eating paskha is to have other people eat it off you. My apologies for the sacrilege, but it’s that good.
The only thing keeping me from eating paskha every week is the fact that paskha-making is a monumental production. The amounts of butter, eggs, cream, sugar, and baker’s cheese are staggering, both in cost and in quantity. Even for the smallest amount I have a recipe for, at least a dozen egg yolks must be separated—fie upon thee, salmonella, we defy thee!—or else the eggs must be cooked and the whites peeled away. The baker’s cheese must be drained for a day, a process that takes up half the shelves in the refrigerator. The last time we made it, we could barely find a bowl big enough to hold everything. And of course, combining everything to that perfect degree of smoothness requires an industrial-sized mixer or Popeye’s right arm.
In short, it is a project not for the faint of heart or weak of arteries.
I haven’t even gotten to kulich, the bread that carries this spread. Kulich is a sort of panettone, made with still more eggs and butter, golden raisins, and a generous pinch of saffron, all of which gives the dough a warm golden color. As beautiful as the bread is, the baking of it is a beast. You have to find, clean, and grease tall cylindrical pans (we used coffee tins, which are conveniently dented at intervals for slicing guides, but are almost as hard to find these days as paskha molds).
All drafts must be kept out of the kitchen, along with anything else—a game of basketball, a dropped object—that might make the tender dough fall during baking. If they don’t fall, the tall loaves will inevitably emerge slightly burnt from the heat off the top element. No matter: The burnt parts are easily cut off, and the rest sliced away into rounds like Boston brown bread, and then slathered with paskha. Now this is an Easter tradition to get into. No clove-studded ham, no overboiled, green-yolked eggs, no simple cinnamon rolls on Sunday morning. This is hard, sweaty work, redeemed by a mouthful of tender, sweet goodness.
I never converted to Orthodoxy, in case you’re wondering, and actually my girlfriend stopped observing the practice sometime during college. Her father died three years ago, and we haven’t made paskha since. So why should I even be thinking about paskha? It’s mine only tenuously, owing to a strange combination of interest, proximity, and inheritance.
Yet I still feel the strange tug as spring arrives. I wonder about where to get the cheese, and try to remember where we put the paskha mold. Is it time? Are we there yet? Yes.
The following paskha recipe is slightly adapted from the parish cookbook of St. Mary’s Orthodox Church in Santa Rosa, Calif.
2 1/2 lbs. sweet butter (unsalted)
5 cups sugar
5 lbs. baker’s cheese
12 hard-boiled egg yolks (run through a sieve)
pulp of 2 vanilla beans
1/2 cup sugar
1 quart whipping cream
Cream butter with the sugar. Add bakers cheese and egg yolks to creamed butter mixture. Process vanilla pulp in blender with 1/2 cup of sugar, add to rest of ingredients, and mix well. Whip the cream and fold into all other ingredients. Pack mixture into new flowerpot with drainage holes, lined with cheesecloth, and put in refrigerator for two days to drain. Unmold onto pretty plate, and garnish with nuts, candied cherries, or dried fruit. (Warning: This recipe makes a lot of paskha.)