This year Russian Easter falls on Sunday, April 15th. So, after the taxes are on their way to Uncle Sam , go celebrate! Saturday night Russian churches will hold traditional midnight services beginning at 11 p.m. and running into the wee hours of the morning. Depending on how long you can stand (no pews in eastern orthodox cathedrals) these services are the most beautiful and festive of the entire year.
Preparing for Easter used to be a major undertaking in most Russian households, starting early with spring cleaning, progressing to special food preparations, and ending with new Easter outfits for the entire family. As our daily lives have gotten busier, traditions such as these have been curtailed a bit. Two “must haves” remain : Kulich (Easter bread) and Paskha (sweet Easter cheese) whether homemade or purchased from the local Russian deli or bakery (Katia’s Tea Room, San Francisco). The following story, excerpted from my memoir-cookbook, The Lobanovsky Family Table, is a humorous account of how my family finally wrote down its own recipe for Kulich. The accompanying photo shows Kulich in preparation. Because the dough is so rich the last thing you want is for the dough not to rise. To that end, all kinds of measures are taken to keep it warm and happy.
Kulich Lobanovsky: Making Russian Kulich (Easter bread) was a holy occasion in our home. My mother put her whole concentration on this project each year: the house was to be quiet, all ingredients and the 6 recipes from which she drew upon were to be on the kitchen table. Forms were prepared only after the dough was mixed. No joking allowed, no fooling around. It was not about being serious necessarily, but more about totally focusing on this important mission.
Because Mama worked, we would set out on making the Kulich after dinner on a Friday evening. Since it took so long to make the dough and prepare the forms, it would be about 1 a.m. before we could go to bed while the dough rose. By the next morning, it was expected to be double or more in bulk and could be put in the forms.
The cost of making Kulich in today’s dollars would be equivalent to taking out a second mortgage on your house. Everything was done to insure that the dough would not get cold because it contained so much butter and other rare and expensive ingredients, like candied fruit and vanilla beans, lots of them. Heaven forbid that the dough should chill, which meant it would be as heavy as lead and would have to be thrown away. The antidote was to start the whole thing all over again. Thank goodness I don’t remember my mother ever having to do that with her Kulich, but some people did. It was nothing short of a tragedy.
Proofing of the yeast was another potential challenge because if one used the yeast without testing it, one could have a disaster of another kind.
Perhaps the no jokes approach stemmed from the Easter in Siberia where my mother’s side of the family came from. My great grandfather, Jacob Urusoff, was chief of police in his village and a dedicated churchgoer. He later served as inspector of Mines. When the Bolsheviks took over, Jacob was in and out of jail himself for refusing to join the communist party. His last incarceration was for attending services over the Easter holidays, the most sacred of all Eastern Orthodox celebrations. By that time services were held secretly, in clandestine makeshift churches, to avoid arrest. My great grandmother was baking her Kulichi. In those days the chore was even more daunting, as the wood stoked ovens made temperature control very difficult, though this was something every housewife had to contend with each time she baked.
The other tradition is that Kulich, even if it is baked a week or two ahead of the holiday, is never cut until Easter day and no earlier than after midnight services. Great grandmother Olga had a hard time baking the Kulichi that year and was concerned about how they had come out. To her dismay when the bread was finally cut, it had a huge hole in the middle. It wasn’t right. She took it as a bad omen. That Easter the Bolsheviks’ firing squad killed her husband.
All this history preceded a funny situation decades later when my girlfriend, Elaine, wanted to learn how to make Kulich before her family moved to Buffalo, New York. Mama agreed to have Elaine watch her prepare Easter bread. On the appointed evening, Elaine, baby Teddy, husband Ted, and Countess, the family dog, all marched through the front door of our 21st avenue San Francisco home, and that alone “changed the vibe” to something very different from the atmosphere Mama was used to. It was anything but quiet, controlled or serious. Elaine, a very energetic and interested student, followed my mother around like a shadow, taking copious notes and asking a million questions, all of which Mama answered with great patience.
To top it all off, the doorbell rang, and Alex Semintovsky, a family friend and another high-energy person, arrived from Los Angeles, unannounced, for a surprise visit. Alex often stayed at my parents’ home, but this was certainly not the time, nor the day my mother would ever have picked to make Kulich had she known she would have a houseful of people.
In spite of all the seeming distractions she had to proceed. Until that day, my mother had never written down her recipe. Like I said earlier, she would assemble her notes from last year, uncle Nick’s recipe, aunt Mary’s, notes from how my grandmother or Aunt Klavdia made it “this year” and would pick and choose a step here, an ingredient there, and I was supposed to watch and learn. This was the approach year after year, until the night Elaine came over. Thank God. It’s due to this set of circumstances that Kulich Lobanovsky exists today.
Epilogue: Mama’s Kulich gained fame in Buffalo, New York. The first Easter that Elaine baked it, the local parish priest offered her fifteen dollars for the recipe. As Elaine put it, “He knew this was the real thing. In Buffalo, those of Russian descent had been there so long that their version of Kulich was more like coffee cake, but baked in tall, round tins. When the priest tasted mine he knew it was the real thing. Mine was authentic. He loved it!”