Easter Celebrations in the Slavic Tradition
While Easter celebrations vary between Christian cultures, when it comes to serving the festive table there is usually a cake or a sweet bread that is crowning its centre. The same is true for Orthodox Christian celebrations in Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, where a sweet bread called Kulich is the main centrepiece.
Kulich is a tall, fragrant, brioche-style cake infused with raisins and sometimes candied citrus fruit, topped with a sugar glaze and sprinkled with colourful sugar decorations. Traditionally baked in tall, cylindrical tins (like coffee or fruit juice tins), nowadays you are more likely to see it baked in panettone-like paper forms.
In Christianity, The Kulich is a symbol of atonement on the cross by Jesus Christ, it also symbolises the body of Christ. The shape of Kulich represents the dome of the Orthodox church. Traditionally, family matriarchs bring their home-baked Kulich to church where it is blessed by a priest.
The blessing ceremony of the food for the Easter table in Orthodox churches is a special experience for the families gathered. Families bring woven baskets, packed to the brim with the food served as part of the first meal after the long and strict lent. In the basket, there is always a Kulich, or a few of them, some decorated hard-boiled eggs, Paskha (more on which below), meat and wine. The priest blesses the food during the main Easter service in the warmth of the candlelight and church choir singing. Kulich is served for breakfast and for dessert during the forty days following Easter until Pentecost.
There are several theories about the history of Kulich and where the tradition came from. Ethnographers claim that it originated in the Pagan times where a sweet rich bread was baked at the beginning of spring as a sacrificial loaf for the good harvest, symbolising fruitfulness and fertility.
Kulich is often served alongside Paskha - another quintessential Slavic Easter dish made with tvorog (cow’s curd cheese, somewhat reminiscent of the Italian ricotta), eggs and sugar. Paskha (or Paska, as it’s called in some parts of Russia and Ukraine) is enriched with sour cream, butter and often infused with saffron. Curiously and confusingly, the word Paskha is often used for both the brioche-like Kulich bread and the curd cheese dessert, depending on where you are in Russia or Ukraine! In the south of Russia and Ukraine both dishes are called Paskhas, differentiating the two with the word syrna, cheese. The bread-like Kulich is historically unknown there!
There are baked and unbaked types of Paskha with hundreds of variations, but the basic principle is for the cheese mixture (raw or uncooked) to be poured into a special pyramid-like mould and allowed to drain overnight. The sides of this mould have the Cyrillic letters “ХБ” on its sides, which stand for “Christ is Risen”. The following day the thickened tvorog is taken out of its mould, revealing the sacred lettering, and decorated with nuts and candied fruit and taken to church, together with the Kulich and painted eggs to be consecrated. The Paskha, essentially an airy cheese cake like spreadable mixture is delicious, when spread on a slice of Kulich – especially after the challenging seven-week lent!
How to bake your own Kulich
For the Kulich (makes 2 small 450g Kulich):
355g strong white flour
130ml of warm whole milk
2 medium eggs at room temperature
40g of active dry yeast
135g of sugar
50g butter melted (if using salted butter, omit the salt)
2g of salt
1tsp vanilla extract
1tsp lemon flavouring
100g of raisins or mixed dried fruit (raisins, apricots, candied peel)
Additional butter for greasing.
For the glaze/icing:
1 egg white
250g (2 cups) icing sugar
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Sugar sprinkles or any other decorations
Instead of the glaze, the Kulich can be covered with melted white chocolate with sugar sprinkles on top.
You will also need 2 cylindrical tins for baking the two kulich. We use standard panettone cases, however, if not available metal tins from canned fruit, decanted and cleaned, can be used.
Place the yeast in half a cup of warm milk with half a teaspoon of sugar and let it sit for 10-20 minutes to activate.
Once the yeast is activated, place all the ingredients (apart from the raisins or dried fruit) in a mixing bowl of a large mixer and mix until you reach the consistency of sour cream. Alternatively, mix by hand. Add the raisins or the dried fruit at the very end.
Cover the dough with cling film and let it rest in a warm place for 3-4 hours. The dough should at least double in volume.
Divide the dough into 2 equal pieces, shape them into ovals and place them into baking tins (the baking tins need to allow the dough to further double in volume without overspilling). We use panettone cases, however, if not available, you can use two large metal tins from canned fruit – decanted, washed and dried. Grease the tins with butter.
Pre-heat the oven at 180-200C at fan setting.
Cover the tins with a wet towel and leave in a warm place, allowing the dough double in volume. Depending on the ambient temperature, this may take between 1 and 2.5 hours.
Bake in the oven for 25 minutes or until the top is golden brown. Test with a wooden skewer in the middle to ensure the kulich is fully baked.
Let it cool down completely.
Beat the icing sugar with egg white and lemon juice until thick but spreadable.
Cover the top of the kulich with a mixture and sprinkle with decorations of your choice.
Allow the top to dry and enjoy!
Karaway is an award-winning bakery specialising in brioche and rye loaves baked in the Baltic tradition. They use traditional recipes, which have been handed down from generation to generation, and only natural ingredients and long fermentation methods. They are proud to have had 7 of their products awarded at the Great Taste Awards in 2020. To sample their popular Kulich, as well as their range of brioche and rye baking, find them at Borough Market, select London Farmers Markets or their online shop: www.karawaybakery.com/shop
Rosehip + Rye are specialists in flavours from the 'New East': from Estonia and Russia to Georgia and beyond. From their kitchen in North-West London, they cook freshly-prepared food and deliver across London once a week. This tiny company is run by Katya and Karina (who are from Tallinn and Moscow resp) was born out of the small ambition to revolutionise the image of Eastern-European food in the UK. Discover their Paskha, as well as other freshly-prepared Eastern delicacies on their online shop: https://shop.rosehipandrye.co.uk/collections/all