Easter, an important religious holiday in Russia, often is celebrated even by non-religious families. At least, the main ritual meals - Easter bread and painted eggs - are on tables across the country.
Easter celebrations start with the Saturday night service, which lasts all night, gathers many people. They bring Easter food, such as decorated boiled eggs, Paskha (a dessert made of sweet cottage cheese) and, of course, Kulich (an Easter cake), to be blessed by the priests, and spend all night in the church standing, holding candles and praying.
Easter is the day of abundant food, the first day after the Great Lent, when the best and the most delicious food is on tables. The Easter breakfast brings all the family members together around a table for a sumptuous feast breaking the Lenten fast. Many will hear a knock on the door – the neighbour children have come to say, "Christ is risen!”, which is followed by, “He is risen indeed” and presenting to the children decorated eggs, kulich and sweets. A band of children with little bags striding along the street on a sunny spring morning – it’s a sure sign, Easter has come! On this day, everyone is with their families – and they are either at home or at church. People pay visits and present each other traditional Easter food.
Decorated eggs are one such item. In the tradition of the Christian Orthodox Churches, legend says that the first real Easter egg was given to the Roman emperor by Mary Magdalene soon after Christ’s ascension, following the custom to bring the emperor some gift, whatever you could. The emperor expressed his disbelief in Christ ascension, “Nobody can rise from the dead ….. as it is hard to believe this egg can turn red!” At once the egg became red, and since that time eggs have served as a symbol of Christ’s resurrection, the victory of life over death. Nowadays, people dye dozens of eggs, with onion skins or food colouring and stickers, before Easter, to eat them through the Easter week and to share with others.
Russian Easter bread or Kulich is usually prepared a few days before Easter, blessed on Saturday before Easter and then eaten in the days following Easter. Rich, soft and delicious, it can be baked in tin cans or in paper molds.
A few weeks before Easter, Kulich can be bought in most bakeries and supermarkets in Russia. If you are in Russia around Easter time, take a chance to try this melting sweet loaf made with lots of eggs and butter. For the rest of you, we are publishing a Kulich recipe. Cook this traditional Easter bread and you won’t regret it! It is a sweet, rich and buttery pastry studded with raisins, lemon zest, candied citrus peel and almonds or walnuts. For me the best thing about Kulich is the heavenly smell in the kitchen while cooking! Cooking time is around 3-4 hours, but, finally, your efforts will be rewarded!
How to make Kulich
For 10-12 medium-sized breads you will need:
• 1 table spoon of dried active baking yeast
• 350 ml warm milk (about 40C)
• 2 cups of sugar
• 1 kg plain flour, sifted
• 6 raw eggs
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 300-400 gr butter, melted
• 1 cup of almonds or walnuts, chopped
• 1 cup of sultanas or raisins
• 1 teaspoon of lemon zest
• 80 gr mixed peel - optional
• A pinch of cinnamon - optional
• 2 egg whites
• 250 gr caster sugar
• A pinch of salt
In the large mixing bowl combine 2 cups of warm milk and dry yeast. Leave for 15 minutes. You can chop nuts and zest your lemon while waiting. Add a half of the flour and mix well. At this stage, you need to cover this pre-dough with a kitchen towel and leave in a warm place (on the radiator, or in a slightly warmed (below 50C) oven) for about 30 minutes.
While the pre-dough is starting to grow, divide eggs into yolks and whites. Whisk the yolks with 2 cups of sugar until the mixture goes white, then whip the egg whites into an airy foam. Melt the butter.
Once your pre-dough has risen, add to it salt, egg yolks with sugar, melted butter, egg whites and the rest of the sieved flour.
Knead the dough until it no longer sticks to your hands to make a very soft and elastic dough. Cover it with a cling film wrap and a towel, and let it rise in a warm place for 2 hours.
Afterwards, stir in sultanas, candied citrus peel, lemon zest and nuts. Divide dough evenly into your molds (fill roughly half of them to leave the room for the rise) that have been well-oiled and, if it is necessary, covered with baking paper. However, if you use paper molds, there is no need to do this. Let dough rise uncovered in a warm place until you see a significant rise.
Bake at 350F/180C for 35-40 minutes or until golden.
Meanwhile, prepare the white crunch. Whisk the raw egg whites with salt into a foam. Evenly add sugar and whisk another 4 minutes.
Once the Kulich are at room temperature, spread the icing over the top of the them and let it drizzle over the sides. A finishing touch – sprinkle with raisins, nuts or other topping!
Enjoy your Easter bread!
If you're interested in traditional Russian cooking, why not try a traditional Russian dinner with a local family?