Pity Kulich

My husband and I stood on the porch under an umbrella, not quite out of the rain, ringing Evdokia’s doorbell. (Her name isn’t really Evdokia, of course.) We knew she was home — she was blind, elderly, and never went anywhere — but she refused to answer.

She knew why we were there.

We were getting damper and colder, despite the fact that it was Orthodox Easter Sunday. We were on a mission, delivering baskets to the shut-in’s, and you don’t get more shut-in than this. My husband dried his hand on his jacket, handed me the umbrella, and took out his phone.

“Evdokia Makarovna, eto ja, otets Giorgi!” “It’s me, Father George,” and he explained that he was here with a basket that the children had made for her. She doesn’t have to come downstairs, if she just buzzes the lock, he will bring it in.

Yes, she knew who he was and why he was there, and she didn’t want the basket. Give it, she said, to someone who DOES need it. And she hung up.

At this point both of our faces were dripping and my headscarf was soaked through. We looked at each other and laughed, and went to the diner alone together for coffee, our annual treat before we went home to finish celebrating the biggest feast of the year with our children.

The basket was small but had all the traditional Russian Easter foods — a hunk of kielbasa, a small cup of pascha cheese, a red egg, and some candy. We had driven all over the Greater Bridgeport area dropping them off, and Evdokia’s was the last stop.

There had actually been some controversy about the baskets. These were given to widows and to shut-ins, but many of the widows didn’t want one, because they could still bake for themselves and indeed, for everyone else. They brought large baskets to church to be blessed for their own families and handed out smaller parcels to others at church, including the fortunate clergy. These women could bake!

The parcels my husband distributed were a group effort. The Sisterhood made the foods, the children made cards and eggs, and we brought them to people. It wasn’t just the goodies that made them special, it was the idea that the church still remembers those who cannot get there often. Sometimes my husband would stay for tea, and catch up with the elderly, filling them in on current doings at church and learning more about the parish’s history.

Sometimes we missed someone — we didn’t know that someone was sick or in the hospital. Sometimes people didn’t want to be contacted. And sometimes a person requested a basket. “She might be a widow, but she still gets around and can cook!” one elderly woman said, while passing on her friend’s request. Well, if someone feels the need to have the priest show up with goodies and stay for tea mixed with sympathy, it’s a need. One more basket is not hard to make.

The baskets were distributed on Pascha and during Bright Week, just before the blessing of graves that takes place the following week. And so it was a time to verify who was buried where, and to gather names of the deceased, as well. Granted, it was also one more thing to do after the most exhausting and exhilarating time of the year. But it was an important ministry.

Some people declined a basket out of shyness. Others didn’t want to see the priest. And then there was the implication of receiving a basket. It’s makes a person part of a category that not everyone is ready to join. Evdokia, whom I never met in person, had been adamant about not needing a basket. Yes, she was blind. Yes, she was a widow. Yes, she couldn’t get to church. But she could still provide. The Sisterhood, whose members were all women who were younger than Evdokia, insisted that we bring her a basket. We were squished in the middle of an intergenerational war, and it seemed better to err by bringing Easter cheer than to risk offending people by not doing so.

It had a difficult Easter for me. I felt like less than a perfect hostess, because while I had made my cheese and dyed my eggs, I had not made kulich.

Kulich is the traditional Russian Easter bread, and it is baked in cylinders (coffee cans, special beakers, empty oatmeal boxes, according to your budget) and is frosted. It contains many of the things we give up for Lent — eggs, milk, butter — and provides a sturdy platform for large helpings of the pascha cheese. But this year I couldn’t knead the dough, because I’d sliced the side of my right hand.

Like most injuries, it was stupid. My children all made their own lunches, and the youngest had decided that “green bean juice on white bread tastes just like steak.” I didn’t see it, but as long as he also brought a protein and a fruit, I had no problem with him packing a baggie of green beans in his lunch. He didn’t need a full can of them, though. So one morning when I was cleaning up the post-exodus mess from four children making lunches to take to three schools, I saw there were a few lonely green beans left in the can. I stuck my hand in to liberate them (and eat them), and when I turned my hand, I sliced it on the edge. I didn’t bleed long, but I bled a lot, and I didn’t want to risk bleeding into dough made with six cups of milk, a dozen egg yolks, saffron, sugar, etc. I bought a tsoureki, instead, from the Greek church. News of my injury reached parishioners and friends, who gave me what my daughter termed “pity kulich,” most of it better than mine, and I bought a Potemkin kulich from the Russian store to grace our basket.

The next day, we were about to eat supper when the doorbell rang. It was Evdokia’s son-in-law. He was holding a large bag, and he looked very, very nervous. He apologized to my husband, held the bag as if it contained a decapitated head and said, “Mama said I need to come.”

Looking much like a nun who was asked to repeat a swear word, he gulped, and continued, “Mama says that she knows you hurt your hand.” He nodded at me briefly but would not make eye contact. “She said that she’s not the one who needs a kulich, you are. She said that even if she can’t see, she can still bake. And she said I should bring you this.”

My husband opened the bag, and pulled out one of the largest and most luscious kulichi I have ever seen. It was golden and smelled of yeast, eggs, and butter. The son-in-law looked like he wanted to sink under the floor boards, and my husband had not yet recovered his power of speech. So it was up to me.

God bless Evdokia. People tried to tell her she was one thing, she maintains she is not, and she decided to prove it in the tastiest way possible. “I am taking notes,” I thought. “This is how one refuses to go gently into the night.”

The son-in-law still stood before us, looking miserable. I had it in my power to fix one thing. I dried my hands on my apron and extended the right one for him to shake. “Please, please thank your mother-in-law for me!” I said. “I’m healing nicely,” I said, showing him the thin line on my hand, “but I was so disappointed that I couldn’t bake, and that looks absolutely delicious. I’m so grateful to you. I appreciate you bringing it to me.”

The son-in-law looked up with relief, and, still not making eye contact, shook my hand, got my husband’s blessing, and fled. It was a glorious kulich, and it lasted us many days. And the next year, and all the years after until she died, none of us ever dared try to bring Evdokia another basket again.

Alas, she never made me another pity kulich.

But I do have a recipe that’s good, I’ve had several more years practice now, and I am truly capable, once again, of making my own. I don’t always take the time to let them cool properly, they may break, but they fill the house with a yeasty miasma, they taste good, and the preparation makes me feel like part of a long line of women laboring to make the celebration palpable for the people around us. We are not Manicheans; the Church blesses Things — bread, water, eggs, cheese — because God’s creation is good, and He allows us to participate in the joy of creation by making things with our own hands to share, in love, in imitation of Him.

Evdokia knew this, and was not going to let anybody tell her that she’s out of the game.

Here’s the recipe for kulich. I quadruple it, but you might not have to.

Enjoy.

Kulich

One and a half cups scalded milk
1 envelope dry yeast (= 2 teaspoons)
4 egg yolks
1 cup butter, melted
1/3 cup grated lemon rind (I don’t use that much)
pinch saffron (I soak this in brandy or rum for more uniform color)
2 (46 ounce) juice cans, washed (remove labels!)
5 1/2 to 6 cups flour
1/4 cup warm water
2/3 cup sugar
2/3 cup chopped blanched almonds (optional)
1/4 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup seedless golden raisins (more or less — you decide)

Scald the milk. Let cool, remove the “skin.” In a large bowl, combine milk and 4 cups flour. Soften the yeast in the 1/4 cup of water; then stir into the flour and milk mixture. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk (about 1 hour).
(This gives you time to separate your eggs, melt your butter, etc.) In a small bowl, beat the yolks with sugar until light and thick. Add butter and blend well. Stir in nuts, lemon rind, salt, saffron, and raisins. Gradually stir in enough flour to make the dough firm enough to handle. Turn out onto a floured board and knead well (this is hard work!) until the dough is smooth and elastic, working in more flour as
needed.
(We discovered that it’s “enough” flour when your hands are no longer goopy with dough.)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. (The recipe says 370 but mine burn if I use that high a temp.) Divide the dough in half and place in cans. (Some people grease the cans with white shortening (Crisco-type stuff or even spray them with Pam) and line then with brown paper. I used to use grocery bags, but that’s not safe any more — some have pesticides — so I buy parchment paper. Other people use butcher paper. The paper should extend above the can. Be sure to cut out a circle for the bottom of the can also.) The cans should be half full. Cover and let rise until doubled in bulk. KEEP THEM OUT OF ANY BREEZES! I had a batch one year that looked gorgeous, but was raw in the middle.

Place cans of dough in a preheated oven. Bake about one hour and fifteen minutes, until golden brown.

Allow kulichi to stand for about five minutes. Take them out of the cans by tugging out the paper. Good cooks roll them back and forth so they are perfectly rounded. I don’t. Mine list, like friends who’ve been carousing, but it’s all good. Peel off the paper and wrap the kulichi each in its own clean towel to cool.
When cool, stand the kulichi up and cover them with lemon glaze (let it trickle down the sides).
Some people decorate the tops with “XB” in candied cherries. Others just use candy sprinkles. Our Ukrainian parishioners use a fresh rose, which is also pretty.
Lemon Glaze: In a small bowl, combine 1/2 cup confectioners (powdered) sugar, 2 teaspoons hot tap water, and one teaspoon lemon juice. Start with less juice and use more only if needed. The frosting should be thick, like fondant.


You can make these in a variety of sizes by varying the cans you use. One quart juice cans, frozen juice concentrate cans, 11 oz. coffee cans, etc. all work.


Remember that smaller kulichi will take less time to bake, and larger will of course take longer. If the tops of the paper start burning, cut them off or ignore it, depending on the danger of them bursting into flame.


Kulichi can be frozen in thick zip lock bags. To serve, cut off the top, then slice the cylinder. Serve the round pieces first, always putting the top back on like a cookie jar lid so the bottom slices don’t dry out. Serve with Pascha cheese.

Next year, you can order good kulich from here!

Gifts, Large and Small

Today I am grateful for the gift of not one but two pumpkins.

A friend who comes to church with me asked me if I use pumpkin. I said yes, I use it my vegan beer brownies* and in cakes, in soups and in pies and as a side dish. She pointed to two pumpkins used in her landscaping and asked if I wanted them when she was ready to change decorations.
I said yes, and expected to pick them up the next week.

However, we had a freeze warning.

(I think my friend is 4’10” and north of seventy-five years old.)

Last Sunday she told me she had the pumpkins for me in the garage, and I could get them after church. When she opened the garage door, she led me to a red wheel barrow.. She had stacked them in there; each was the size of a snowman’s base. I have no idea how she managed to lift and wheel them in. “Careful pushing that,” she said as I wheeled it toward my car, “It’s heavy!” And she gave a small smile.

She also gave me two of her aloe vera plants that she’d had in her garden all summer. One will live in the living room, the other in the kitchen.

My brave husband spared my fingers by carving up the first of the pumpkin for me into chunks, and I am cooking them slowly but surely. We had some roasted with nutmeg and butter on Tuesday, and it was delicious, we ate every spoonful. And there will be more. Some for diabetic friendly pumpkin cheesecake, some to mix into chocolate cakes, some to simmer with coconut milk into soups and some to eat like a vegetable.

Sliced pumpkin, covered with a towel, waiting to be roasted. Copyright Ann McLellan Lardas, 2017

We have reached the portion of the year where Winter wishes to overtake Fall. The leaves have turned and faded; many have fallen. The days are shorter, the darkness comes faster and remains deeper.  The only way to fight the darkness is love.

Love is, among other things, someone protecting her enormous pumpkins, for you, from the squirrels and the frost, so you can bake and share it.

I am grateful.

* Beer brownies — in a huge mixing bowl, combine two packages of dairy free brownie mix, one can of pumpkin (14 ounces, or about a cup and a half of home cooked pumpkin), and one twelve ounce bottle of cheap beer. Stir. Spread the mix into two pans according to the direction on the package and bake as directed. Vegan.

That Lenten Chocolate Cake

That Lenten Chocolate Cake

Purists mix this in the pan, but I use a mixing bowl, to keep the floor clean.

Stir together the dry ingredients:
3 cups flour
2 cups sugar
6 tablespoons cocoa powder (friends use more)
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt

Add the moist ingredients:
2 teaspoons vinegar
2 tablespoons vanilla (friends use way more)
2 cups warm water
¾ cup vegetable oi

Sift together flour, sugar, cocoa, soda and salt into mixing bowl. Make three holes; in one put vanilla, in one put vinegar, and in the last hole put
oil. Over this pour warm water and mix back and forth until all is mixed. Do not beat.

Pour into:
one nine by thirteen baking pan, or
two 8″ or 9″ round or square pans (eight inches will be taller, nine inches thinner) or
one bundt pan, or
make a dozen cupcakes.
Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Top with frosting or sprinkle with powdered sugar.
(To do this, put some powdered sugar in a small strainer and shake it gently over the cake.)

Variations on the Theme

Mint Chocolate Cake:
Frost with mint frosting.

Chocolate Chip Cake:
Omit cocoa and add up to one cup chocolate chips.

Chocolate Chocolate Chip cake:
Add up to one cup of chocolate chips.

Chocolate Cherry Cake:
In place of water, use all the juice from a jar of maraschino cherries plus enough water to make two cups. Chop the cherries (or don’t) and add them at the last minute.

Apple Sauce Cake:
Omit the coco powder.
Use applesauce instead of water.
Add 2 teaspoons (okay, tablespoons) cinnamon.

Photo credit: serenejournal via Foter.com / CC BY

Farmer’s Cheese

This year, Orthodox Easter, or Pascha, will fall on May 1. One of the dishes we traditionally make is called syrnaja pascha, “pascha cheese.” It is a cheese-cake like food that we mold into a pyramid and eat slathered onto a sweet bread called kulich.

One of the ingredients for pascha cheese is farmer’s cheese. Apparently there are two kinds of farmer’s cheese. One is a hard product that you can chop up and put in salad. It’s closely akin to paneer and does not lend itself well to blending or molding. The other is the kind that they sell in Russian stores. We could not find it in the part of Houston where we lived for eleven years, so the ladies at church taught me how to make my own.

Farmer’s Cheese

Scald one gallon milk.

Remove from burner and add one quart buttermilk (from the nuns, I learned to pour things in the sign of the Cross. Since you’re not supposed to stir this, it makes even more sense here.)

Cover with a towel and place out of breezes for a day and a night and a day.

At the end of the second night, place it in the oven on “warm.”

In the morning you will see a mountain of curds in a sea of whey (unless it doesn’t work. Some years it doesn’t work, and California milk needs to be treated differently for reasons I do not understand).

Strain the curds into a very clean pillow case or tee shirt — cheese cloth has too wide a weave for this.

Refrigerate in a closed container until you are ready to use.

One gallon of milk plus one quart of buttermilk makes approximately two and a half pounds of Farmer’s Cheese.

Does it save money? Yes! Locally, in Fairfield County, Connecticut, Farmer’s cheese runs from $3.99 to $7.99 per pound. I can make ten pounds of cheese for about ten dollars.

Photo: Curds sans whey