Russian Easter Bread
Reprinted with permission from Beyond the North Wind: Russia in Recipes and Lore by Darra Goldstein, copyright © 2020. Photography credit: Stefan Wettainen © 2020. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
The tall domed loaf known as kulich is always paired with the pyramidal Easter cheesecake called paskha. And like paskha, kulich is baked but once a year. Superstition holds that the success of this sweet bread is mood dependent, so don’t try making it if you’re feeling impatient or testy. The reason isn’t merely superstition: Kulich needs to be treated gently when it’s removed from the oven. Old-fashioned cooks actually turn the loaf out onto a down pillow and carefully roll it from side to side until it’s completely cool so that the loaf doesn’t lose its shape. Once cool, the loaf can be placed upright without worry. Kulich is always decorated in celebration of the holiday, glazed with white icing and topped with dragées or flowers.
Pious Russians bring their kulichi to church to be blessed at the Easter Eve service. Only then is the loaf placed on the Easter table.
Makes 1 large loaf
1 package active dry yeast (2 1⁄4 teaspoons)
1⁄4 cup lukewarm water
1⁄2 cup lukewarm whole milk
3⁄4 cup granulated sugar
5 3⁄4 cups flour
12 tablespoons melted unsalted butter, cooled to lukewarm, plus more for greasing
4 whole eggs, at room temperature
4 egg yolks, at room temperature
3⁄4 teaspoon ground cardamom
3⁄4 teaspoon salt
1 vanilla bean
1⁄3 cup currants
1⁄4 cup candied orange peel
1⁄4 cup blanched sliced almonds
1 1⁄2 cups confectioners’ sugar
1⁄4 teaspoon almond extract
2 to 3 tablespoons hot water
In the bowl of a stand mixer, dissolve the yeast in the warm water. Stir in the milk, 1⁄4 cup of the granulated sugar, and 1 cup of the flour. Cover and let the sponge rise in a warm place for 1 hour, until puffy. Transfer the bowl to the mixer stand.
Using the dough hook on the lowest speed, mix in the butter, the remaining 1⁄2 cup granulated sugar, the whole eggs and egg yolks, the cardamom, and the salt. Slit the vanilla bean and scrape the seeds into the batter. Add the remaining 4 3⁄4 cups flour to make a soft, rather sticky dough.
Knead with the dough hook on low speed for 10 minutes, until the dough is very smooth and pliant. Remove the bowl from the mixer and with a wooden spoon gently stir in the currants, candied orange peel, and almonds until evenly distributed. Place the dough in a greased bowl, cover, and let rise until doubled in bulk, 1 1⁄2 hours.
Butter a tall 2 1⁄2-quart pudding mold. Line the bottom and sides with parchment paper, turning the edges of the paper out over the top of the mold and crimping them to make sure the paper stays in place. Butter the paper.
Preheat the oven to 375°F. Flour your hands well, then punch down the dough and knead it lightly a few times. Drop it into the prepared mold. The dough should come no farther than two-thirds of the way up the sides of the mold. Let the dough rise until it comes just to the top of the mold, no more, about 15 minutes.
Bake for 10 minutes, then turn the heat to 350°F and continue baking for 35 to 40 minutes, until nicely browned on top and a cake tester comes out dry.
When the kulich is done, set it on a rack to cool in the mold for 10 minutes. Carefully turn it out onto a wooden board, on its side, parchment paper removed, to cool completely.
While the kulich is cooling, prepare the icing. Sift the confectioners’ sugar to remove any lumps, then stir in the almond extract and enough of the hot water to make a pourable icing that isn’t too thin.
Once the kulich has cooled, turn it upright and glaze with the icing, letting the icing drip down the sides. Decorate the iced kulich with flowers or sprinkles. To serve, cut off the top—the mushroom crown—and set it aside. Then slice the loaf horizontally, replacing the crown to keep the bread moist and its symmetry intact.
If you can’t find a tall 2 1⁄2-quart mold, you can bake the kulich in one or two smaller molds. Just be sure not to fill any mold more than two-thirds full, because the crown really mushrooms. Alternatively, you can shape any remaining dough into a round and bake it as you would a loaf of bread. Depending on the size of the pans you use, smaller loaves may not take as long to bake, so check them periodically.
It may be blasphemous, but I like to serve kulich as a dramatic sweet bread for breakfast or brunch. Instead of icing it, I simply glaze the unbaked loaf with 1 egg yolk stirred with 1⁄2 teaspoon water to give the top a lovely sheen.
For saffron-flavored kulich, dissolve 1⁄2 teaspoon crumbled saffron threads in 1 tablespoon warm whole milk and leave to infuse for 10 minutes, then add to the dough in place of the cardamom.