Monday, March 25, 2013

Pascha: Easter Sweet Cheese Spread, Updated

In 2009 I posted about Festive Easter Breads and Cheese. My cookbooks are full of margin notes, so I thought I would update my notes on the recipes. This is crossposted with my food blog, Family Food in Feast and Feria.

We enjoy spreading Pascha, the Easter Sweet Cheese Mold on the Paska, just like in one of our favorite children's books, Rechenka's Eggs by Patricia Polacco. 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. Be sure to make ahead (the recipe says 2-3 days. Wednesday or Holy Thursday is probably the latest). I omit the candied fruit and the almonds, as I want a smoother, creamier texture. My husband always requests this so I have been working on improving this every year.

The recipe I use is from A Continual Feast: A Cookbook to Celebrate the Joys of Family and Faith Throughout the Christian Year by Evelyn Vitz. I’ve had the pleasure to meet her and some of her daughters (and even go on retreat with her and her daughter in law this month!). But I digress…

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 other the sweet Easter breads, such as Kulich, or Paska Or Easter Sweet Bread or with various Easter cakes.

There was some discussion of the "farmer cheese" from the previous post. This is a more difficult ingredient to find. My grocery store carries this, the brand is "Friendship", but you can try ethnic grocery stores. Some people have had success with Mexican queso fresco. It is NOT an aged hard cheese, but a soft and crumbly, almost like ricotta, or a softer version of feta. It is usually found near the yogurt, cottage cheese and/or sour cream, but not in the cheese section

If you cannot find farmer's cheese and need to use large curd cottage cheese or ricotta, rinse the 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’ve had trouble over the years having the mixture drain well so it becomes firm. Last year was my most successful year. The flowerpot that works well for me is an 8″ clay flowerpot. But I have found the shorter and wide flowerpot drained better than the tall pot. The picture below shows the two 8″ pots, but the one on the left is the one I use for both the bread Paska and the cheese spread. These are just clay pots made in Italy that I found in my local gardening store. I cleaned well before using.

After covering with cheesecloth, I place a small plate on top, then used a weight (literally, one or two of my husband’s free weights) and then put the pot in a large bowl. Last year the bowl was shaped that the pot was suspended above a few inches, instead of flat on the bottom. This allows more draining.
For decorating I just keep it simple. And face it — no matter how beautiful the presentation, after one small serving it never looks "pretty" again. But that doesn't matter, because it is super delicious and everyone will keep coming back for more.

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 (I omit)
1 cup blanched almonds, chopped (I omit)
2 tablespoons freshly grated orange or lemon rind (I use both, enough zest from one orange and 1 lemon)
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. (NOTE: Using a stand mixer, this is about 5 minutes.) 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.
(NOTE: I use a wire whisk to beat while heating. I have a gas stove, and using fresh cream from the farmer the mixture is already very thick. On the heat this takes about 10-15 minutes. You will know it's getting thicker when you see the sugar dissolving. At the beginning it's very grainy. After removing from the heat I either put back in the stand mixer and just beat until cooled to lukewarm, or keep in saucepan and stir with the whisk. I don't do it constantly, but very regularly, while I'm beating the other ingredients.)
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. (NOTE: At this point the mixture is very soupy.)
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.) (NOTE: After pouring into the mold, I put a plate and then weigh it down. I gradually add more weights, my husband's free weights, after the mixture has chilled longer. Try to place a plate that covers the whole top. There will be oozing over. Do not panic.) 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

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. This year I bought a simple Easter basket cloth made by some Catholic ladies in Johnstown, PA, which I can't wait to use.

Update 2016: After struggling for many years on my molds not draining, a friend suggested I use true
Pascha molds. I got two red plastic ones. The symbols did not leave an imprint on the molds, but they did drain well! I highly recommend going this route.

A blessing on the Paschal feast, and your celebration!

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  1. Have you ever made a Lamb cake for Easter? I have a Lamb cake mold but have never attempted this and need advice, suggestions. etc.


    1. Here is a link to the Lamb cake I usually make with a mold: A Lamb Shaped Cake for Easter

    2. I just made my lamb cake this afternoon, using my grandma's old cast iron mold :). I follow this recipe:
      Because the holes in my pan are on the face side, I always bake it face side up, and just make sure I add enough extra batter for the nose (didn't quite happen this time, but it was pretty close!)
      A few tips:
      If you have a cast iron pan, don't wash it with water! I usually just wipe it out with oil really really well. Then I grease (or coconut oil!) it about twice as much as I think it will need, then flour it, making sure EVERYTHING is coated.
      When adding the batter, make sure to add enough. My pan has holes on the one side, so I don't worry about over filling it - any extra just seeps out the holes. Don't know how that works with other pans.
      Add toothpicks to the ears to keep them from breaking. I don't remember having a problem with this using this recipe (if I've greased my pan well enough,) but better safe then sorry! Some people say to add a skewer to the neck, too.
      Tie the two halves together somehow to keep the batter from pushing the top as it rises. Even with the heavy pans this can be a problem. I usually use rosary wire :).
      Have fun!

    3. This secular site has some great tips on making a lamb cake:

  2. Thanks for the great post, Jen! Your Pascha looks wonderful!

  3. I just made this year's batch and I've updated the recipe notes with a few more tips.

  4. Thank you all. This really helps!


  5. It's not hard to make your own cheese for this - try recipe at Natashas kitchen or Olga's flavor factory. both have worked great for me.

  6. Instead of the porous flower pots for Pashka, I use various shaped colanders with either cheesecloth or damp, new coffee filters. I make my own farmers cheese and use the leftover whey liquid instead of milk in my Paska bead.

  7. I agree making the cheese is difficult. There's a battery operated,self mixing gadget (not sure what it's called?) available that stirs the pot. The hardest part about making cheese is standing over the pot. The gadget and a thermometer make cheese making a breeze!