Today is the first day of the most stressful week of the year. And yet, I look forward to it. I know it's going to be crazy, I know I'm going to have some sort of breakdown (screaming or crying, usually), and yet, there's a delicious anticipation. No matter what happens, Pascha (known to you, perhaps, as Easter) is coming. No matter what, Sunday is going to be a beautiful and joyous day. That's the promise of Holy Week, and on a larger scale, also the promise of this earthly life.
In the Orthodox Church, the stretch of days starting on Palm Sunday and ending on the afternoon of Pascha includes no fewer than 13 church services. In its entirety, yes, it's grueling and difficult. But there are so many beautiful moments. My favorites: On Thursday night, the congregation stands silently holding lit candles while the priest intones the 12 Passion Gospels. We proceed home with lanterns carrying the candle flame, blessing the doorways with them. On Friday afternoon, we are all mourners at Christ's funeral procession. And by the time the main event, a four-hour Pascha service, begins at 11:30 p.m. Saturday night, everyone is giddy with anticipation of the Resurrection and the dawn of a beautiful day of hope and light.
And, in between all those services, the house has to be cleaned, the eggs dyed, and the traditional fast-breaking foods prepared. It's a lot of work.
I started last week by baking the kulichi. They take most of a day to make, and they freeze very well, so I have adopted my mother's approach of doing them ahead.
Kulich is a yeasty sweet bread that is baked in tall cylindrical cans, filled with butter, milk, egg yolks, rum, vanilla, candied orange peel and raisins. Every family has their own recipe, of course. I've tried many, many different kulichi, including one purportedly made using the recipe employed by the last Tsar's kitchen (either that's false, or he ate some really sub-par kulich). I am totally confident in saying that my mother's recipe is the absolute best one out there.
(I'm not biased towards her cooking, either - I'm pretty sure that my lifelong hatred of zucchini and summer squash can be traced back to the steaming, translucent and vaguely gelatinous pile of boiled-to-an-inch-of-its-life mush that passed for a veggie side-dish during my childhood.)
Kulich is so finicky that, even after letting it rise three full times before baking, you have to put it to bed on pillows after baking, lest it fall and ruin all your hard work. Mine have never turned out just exactly right, but they always taste good, even if they are a little dense.
So, first you take a whole lotta yeast, and put it in warm water with some sugar. When it bubbles, it's ready for the next step.
Then you add a pound of melted butter (cooled, so as not to boil the yeast alive) and a whole bunch o' flour. And you cover it and let it rise to double.
In a separate bowl, combine nine (yes, nine) egg yolks ...
... with a whole bunch of sugar and some vanilla and almond extract.
Then add the candied orange peel.
And some rum.
I like to add the syrup from the orange peel too.
Then mix that into the flour/butter/yeast mixture.
Then you let it rise again. And after it has risen, you pound the heck out of it. I like to put my bowl on the floor, pick up the dough, and hurl it back down. It's a great way to get that Holy Week aggression out of your system without screaming at people. I tried to capture this on film with my self-timer, but this was the best I could do:
Then you put the batter into your prepared pans (read: cans). The two in front are 20-30 years old, spirited away from my mother's stash. They don't make good coffee cans anymore. The silver ones in back are from various canned fruits, vegetables and juices, but they are thinner and don't cook as evenly as the Folgers and Maxwell House ones.
Then you let it rise one more time, like so.
Once they come out of the oven, you get them out of hte coffee cans and place them carefully on dishtowel-covered pillows. And you salivate at the yumminess in the air, knowing that you can't dig in until Pascha.
These are now safely in the freezer (they freeze like a dream). I will thaw a couple of them and ice them on Saturday. More pictures to come.