“This is when you wish you had one of those Russian grandmothers on hand, the ones who’ve been making kulich all their lives,” says Nick Coe, kneading a huge mass of heavy dough. The traditional Russian Easter cake is usually made in large quantities--the recipe he’s using makes four kuliches.
The Orthodox churches calculate the date of Easter differently than the Western churches. Most years Orthodox Easter comes a week later--this year, for instance, it’s April 30--though in 2001 both Easters will fall on the same day. Easter is the chief holiday of the year among the Orthodox, and the Russians celebrate it by ending the Lenten fast with a bang.
“Everybody goes to the Easter eve services at church,” says Coe, the proprietor of Nick’s, a California cuisine restaurant in South Pasadena. “They’re over around 2 in the morning, and then we have a big buffet at the church.
“It’s all cold food, of course, because it had to be made hours before, and the big emphasis is on foods you’re supposed to give up for Lent--meat, eggs, sugar, butter.” The Russian Easter breakfast is a sort of Mardi Gras in reverse.
Kulich is a very rich yeast-risen cake, though quite light when well made. It’s also an impressive sight, because it’s baked in special molds to make it as tall as possible. (Russian American cooks use coffee cans, which turn darker and bake better every year. Whenever his family moved, Coe’s mother had to be sure the movers didn’t instinctively throw out her treasured but disreputable-looking old kulich can.)
Tall cakes are an ancient tradition in Russia. A 12th century traveler to the Baltic area reported seeing cakes as tall as a man. “When it comes to tall food,” quips Coe, laboring away at the dough, “the Russians were there first.”
Several non-Russian nationalities, including the Latvians and Lithuanians and the Volga Germans, have adopted the custom of making kulich, though they tend to call it paskha. (In Russian, paskha is the name of the rich, sweetened cheese dish that accompanies kulich.) Kulich is a cousin of baba, a cake also made by the Poles and Lithuanians--and, for the last 200 years, by the French, who still make baba au rhum.
Kulich is taller, though, and is always flavored with either saffron or cardamom. Unlike baba, it’s supposed to overflow the top of the mold as it rises in the oven, giving a slight suggestion of a mushroom cap to its appearance.
Because the dough is so rich with butter and eggs, rising takes rather a long time. The second rising is particularly crucial. Old Russian cookbooks warn that men should not clump around the house in heavy boots during the rise, lest the dough collapse.
The finished kulich is frosted with royal icing, which rolls down its sides in luxurious dribbles. Unlike many festival breads, such as panettone, kulich does not necessarily contain nuts or dried fruit, but its frosting is usually garnished with them. In fact, the frosting can be decorated with just about anything from candy sprinkles and rock-hard silvered dragees to flowers and Marshmallow Peeps.
Coe’s mother, the anthropologist and food historian Sophie Coe (nee Dobzhansky), preferred the flavor of the top of the kulich without frosting. She would cover it with paper napkins and frost them, making a stiff removable “cap” that preserved the proper kulich look.
Because it’s so tall, kulich is not cut into wedges like other cakes. Slices are cut from it horizontally and then the dome-shaped top of the cake is replaced. “This helps keep the cake from staling,” says Coe, “though it doesn’t stale very fast in any case because of all of the butter.” Kulich will easily keep for a week on the lowest shelf of a refrigerator. In some Russian families, it replaces bread throughout Holy Week.
It’s a fairly laborious cake to make but the impressive appearance, light texture and richness make it worth the trouble. As one sign of that, Coe remembers from his childhood that some sneaky people--certainly not grown-ups--perfected a technique of removing slices of kulich so that nobody would know they were missing.