Thursday, April 9, 2009

Festive Easter Breads and Cheese: Paska and Pascha

ETA 2013: See my updates for Paska and Pascha.

Since my family has no dominant ethnic heritage, I love to dig up cookbooks and be inspired by different cultural traditions for feast days. Florence Berger echoes my thoughts:
Being American Catholic, we can choose the best of the cultures of all the nations of the world and make them ours in Christ. We can call the songs, the stories, the dances and the foods of all peoples our own because in our American heritage there is blood and bone and spirit of these different men and women. If America is a melting pot, it can also be a cooking pot from which we women can serve up a Christian culture. (Cooking for Christ, NCRLC, 1949)
My favorite area is through festive breads (although I confess I haven't been as adventurous since my son was diagnosed with food allergies). My interest in Ukrainian psyanky (and Polish pisanki) made me interested also in the Ukrainian and Polish foods used to celebrate Easter.

One year I made this very simple Paska, Ukrainian Easter Bread from The Festive Bread Book by Kathy Cutler (1982). It's festive, but not heavy, and a perfect accompaniment to the sweet Easter cheese mold. This is usually included in the Easter Baskets brought to church for a blessing (also the Roman Ritual). I simply used a Corning Ware 1-1/2 quart round covered French White Casserole without the lid and it worked out fine (use what you have!).

Paska (Ukrainian Easter Bread)

1 egg
1 egg yolk
2 1/2 - 3 1/2 cups flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon active dry yeast
1 teaspoon grated lemon peel
1 teaspoon grated orange peel
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup golden raisins (I used more, up to one cup)
1/2 cup milk
4 Tablespoons unsalted butter
melted butter, if desired

Beat egg and egg yolk until fluffy and light. Add 2 cups flour, sugar, salt yeast, lemon peel, orange peel, vanilla and raisins. Mix thoroughly.

Heat milk and butter to hot (120 to 130 degrees F). Add to flour mixture. Mix thoroughly.

Add enough remaining flour to form a soft dough. Knead on lightly floured surface until smooth -- about 10 minutes.

Place in greased bowl, turning to coat top. Cover; let rise in warm place until double -- about 1 hour.

Punch down dough. Set aside a little of the dough to be used as decoration on top for the loaf. Shape the rest into a ball.

Place in greased cake pan 3 inches deep and 6 inches across or 1 quart souffle dish. Make cross of remaining piece of dough; place on top of loaf.

Cover; let rise in warm place until double -- about 30 minutes.

Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven 45-60 minutes or until done. Cool on wire rack. While still warm, brush with melted butter if desired.

The decorations on top of the loaf are very individual, and can be ornate. These hints from Ukrainian Easter by Mary Ann Woloch Vaughn are extremely helpful. I did a simple cross and made an Alpha and Omega on either side of the cross, reminiscent of the Paschal Candle decorations.

We enjoyed spreading the Easter Cheese Mold on the bread. At first I was a bit confused, as the name for the dessert cheese is Pascha (or Pashka), very close to the Ukrainian name for the bread. And "Pascha" is the Orthodox name for Easter. Once I got the names sorted out, I was convinced I had to try the cheese. I didn't have an "official" mold, so used the clean clay unglazed flowerpot as per A Continual Feast's directions. Be sure to make ahead (today or tomorrow). I omitted the candied fruit. My cheese did not mold (it didn't drain), so I ended up serving from the flowerpot. It was still delicious.


This is an absolutely beautiful and delicious dish; versions are prepared in Poland, Russia, the Ukraine, and Latvia. It is made in a tall mold (or flower pot), then turned out onto a large platter and decorated. Cool and rich, it tastes like a cross between ice cream and cheesecake. It goes wonderfully with the sweet Easter breads, such as Kulich, or with the various Easter cakes.

1 whole egg
4 egg yolks
2 1/3 cups sugar
1 cup heavy cream
2 pounds farmer cheese (see comments)
1/2 pound sweet butter, at room temperature
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups fruit: raisins and/ or dried currants, mixed candied fruit peel
1 cup blanched almonds, chopped
2 tablespoons freshly grated orange or lemon rind
For decorating:
Candied fruit peel, maraschino cherries, or nuts
Fresh strawberries to place around the base and on top

Beat the egg and the yolks until thick and lemon-colored. Gradually add the sugar, and beat until the mixture is thick and creamy. Pour into a saucepan and add 1/2 cup of the cream.

Heat over medium-low heat, beating constantly, until the mixture begins to thicken. Do not boil. Remove the pan from the heat and continue beating until the mixture has cooled to lukewarm.

In a mixing bowl, combine the cheese, butter, the other 1/2 cup of cream and the vanilla. Cream until the mixture is smooth. Add the egg mixture, then the fruits, almonds, and orange or lemon rind. Blend thoroughly.

Line a flower pot or Pascha mold with 2 thicknesses of cheesecloth. Place the pot over a bowl (to catch liquid), and pour the Pascha mixture into the pot. Put a layer or two of cheesecloth over the top, set a plate on it and something heavy on the plate. (The purpose is to press the extra liquid out of the Pascha and into the bowl below.) Chill overnight or for a day or two.

Remove the top cheesecloth. Unmold the Pascha onto a large platter, and remove the rest of the cheesecloth.

Decorate the Pascha with the candied fruit peel or maraschino cherries or nuts to form the letters XB or CR (Christ is risen) on one side, and on the other side a cross. You may use the Western cross form or the Orthodox cross, or any other cross design that you prefer. In Russia, Pascha is often decorated with an angel and a lily, as well as the cross.

Around the base and on top of the Pascha, place fresh strawberries. Serve chilled.

Yield: 14 to 16 servings
From A Continual Feast by Evelyn Vitz

The best part after making these goodies, was arranging the Easter basket for a blessing at our parish by the pastor. I included our Easter eggs, pysanky, ham, wine, butter lamb, paska and pashka. I loved seeing all elaborate cloths and baskets and beautiful breads and goodies, and it inspired me to do more the next year.

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  1. Thank you for this! I've always wanted to try the food from Rechenka's Eggs but didn't know a good recipe. I've always thought it would be fun to do for Divine Mercy.

  2. Jenn - what do you think "farmer's cheese" is in the Pascha? I'd like to try this and I actually have a cheese mold/press I use for my yogurt (to drain the whey) that I think would work...I'm just not sure what farmer's cheese is.

    1. it's not jogurt, it is something like this :)
      it is white cheese, not sweet, very soft, made of milk

  3. Jen, I think I used ricotta, but large curd cottage cheese is mainly suggested. But the step I didn't take (that isn't include in Vitz's instructions) is to rinse the cottage cheese with cold water and drain well in a fine colander. Ricotta might need to just be drained. Then take a fine mesh strainer and press the cheese through to make it finely sieved and ready to mix. I think that would have helped my molding issue.

  4. Hi Jenn! Thank you for these great recipes. I'm going to try them both. They look so good!

  5. For the first time, I made Pascha for Easter, this year. It was absolutely delicious ! Thanks for the recipe. I also baked an Easter lamb, in a special terracotta mould from "Alsace", a french country from where this cake is a traditionnal one.Many thanks for your blog, very very interesting and useful
    Easter blessings from France

  6. Thank you for the recipe! My daughter was adopted from Russia, so we will be trying Kulich (the bread) and Paskha this year on the Sunday when Orthodox Easter is celebrated. In Russia, they use the Paskha like a spread on the Kulich.

    It can be hard to find farmer's cheese; you often have to look at ethnic grocery stores. Ricotta cheese is close, but farmer's cheese is a bit more firm. Lifeway makes farmer's cheese (the same company that makes and sells kefir). I can find it sometimes in regular grocery stores near the Kefir or yogurt. Never by the cheese; I don't think the store personnel think it is cheese!

  7. I use Mexican queso fresco for farmer's cheese.

  8. I did find farmer's cheese in our grocery store, and it is much thicker. I often wondered about the queso, so thanks for that input. I'm still struggling to get all the extra liquid drain out. This years's mold had a concave shape. Since it's a spread and absolutely delicious, it doesn't quite matter except for presentation. I think I really need to buy a real mold and see if that makes a difference...I'm still using a flowerpot.

  9. In case anyone is still reading careful when buying "Farmer's Cheese". A cheese company that sells in California grocery stores has a product called "Farmer's", but it is harder like an Edam or Havarti cheese. The kind you want for Eastern European recipes is like a firmer version of ricotta, or a softer version of feta. It is somewhat crumbly and has a unique flavor that cannot be duplicated with another cheese. It spoils easily, which is why most stores don't carry it.

  10. you can easily make your own "farmer's cheese" or tvorog. try Natasha's kitchen blog. that's my standby. or make it more quickly using Olga' Flavor Factory.