Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Easter Baking: Kulich from Russia

I have just started my Easter baking experiments, and though this might seem a little early, the supermarkets have already beaten me by several weeks. The supermarket shelves are now full of hot cross buns, chocolate eggs, rabbits; no doubt they are hoping that whatever we buy now we will have eaten well before Easter and will therefore have to go back and buy some more.

If you were looking for something original to bake, like those strange brownies with halved Cadbury cream eggs embedded in them, then click away now, as I have started with the very traditional Russian Kulich bread.

My inspiration for this came about from a wish to take part in Chris's monthly Bloggers Around the World blog challenge, which to coincide with the 2014 Winter Olympics had settled on Russia for the February challenge. It is many years since I went to Russia and my only happy memory of the food there was the sweet breakfasts breads that were served in very short supply each morning. In the mid 1980s package holidays to the Soviet Union were very popular. I went in 1985 when the Union was marking 40 years since the end of World War II, Mikhail Gorbachev had not long been in power.

I did a three city break to Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev. Much has changed since then, it was pre Chernobyl, and well before the break up of the Soviet Union. Kiev was the one place I enjoyed, everywhere else was so very grey. Here is a market we found in Kiev where vegetables were on display in almost military order.
These ladies only sold potatoes
Headscarves and white coats seemed essential

We did all of the usual things, filed passed Lenin in his tomb and I had my hands yanked out of my pockets by a young soldier who clearly thought it disrespectful, though I was just trying to keep warm at the time. We watched a man screech his car to a halt so he could jump out and grab a cabbage off the road that had just fallen off a cart full of cabbages. We were taken to a very smelly circus and a very dull ballet but it was really everything I was expecting.

But I did enjoy those breakfast breads, so in memory of those I am baking a Russian Easter bread called kulich which is very like a panettone in texture and is likewise studded with glace fruits. I have some rather musty copies of the Time-life Foods of the World series, including 'The Cooking of Russia' which was published in 1969. The recipe for kulich in this Time-Life book calls for 10 egg yolks which I decided was too extravagant right now as my chickens are only just starting to get back into lay and that was about as many eggs as I collect in a whole week at the moment.

But the book is full of cultural information and if nothing else the cover is very apt for this post as it shows the traditional Ukranian decoration of Easter eggs. The Kulich breads were taken to church to be blessed and would form part of an Easter feast served with paskha, a mixture of soft cheese enriched with cream, vanilla, candied fruits, egg yolks and nuts.

The kulich cakes should be baked in tall tins, 12 inches (30cm) high which I did not have so I attempted to give a little more height to my cakes by putting a collar of baking parchment around the tin.

 The recipe I settled on was from Paul Hollywoods '100 Great Breads' but with a few tweaks to incorporate the flavourings in the Time-Life recipe. It makes 2 loaves using tins of  approx 15cm diameter.

500g strong plain flour
1 level tsp salt
75g caster sugar
75g butter
1 tsp instant dry yeast
4 eggs beaten
100g raisins soaked in a few tablespoons of rum
pinch of saffron threads
100g mixed chopped candied.glace fruit (citrus peels, cherries, angelica, glace fruits)
75g nibbed or pin almonds
1/4 tsp powdered cardamom
enough milk to make a soft dough ~ 250ml
  • make a ' pre-ferment' by mixing the dry yeast, 100g of the flour and 100ml of milk and leave to rise in a warm place of 1-2 hours. The dough should be rising and looking 'active'.
  • infuse the saffron in about 100 ml of the milk, warmed, and leave for about ten minutes.
  • in a large bowl mix the rest of the flour, salt, sugar, cardamom and rub in the butter.
  • now add the pre-ferment, eggs and saffron milk to the bowl and start to bring the dough together.
  • add additional milk to produce a soft but not sticky dough.
  • knead the dough until it feels elastic and takes on a smoother appearance. This can be achieved by several very short kneads each followed by rests of about 10-15 minutes should you find dough kneading hard work or just annoying.
  • leave the dough, covered, to rise until double in size.
  • now knead in the raisins, chopped glace/candied fruits  and almonds. This can be tricky as the pieces of fruit jump out all over the place. Just get as even a distribution as you can and leave the dough to rise again for an hour.
  • divide the dough in two and shape into balls before placing in the lined tins.
  • cover and leave to rise until double in size.
  • bake initially at 200c for approx 30 mins until the loaves have taken on a good colour and then turn the oven temperature down to 180c to finish the baking (another 20-30 minutes depending on the size of the tins). Use your judgement here and if the loaves are darkening too much turn your oven down again or cover the tops of the loaves with parchment paper. If you have used smaller tins the baking time may be less.
  • the loaves are cooked when a hollow sound comes from tapping the base of the loaf. Turn the loaves out carefully from the tins to do this test as an under-baked loaf can easily collapse and make the crumb 'heavy' if handled roughly before the loaf has fully baked.
  • Once baked carefully turn out to cool on a rack
The cooled loaves are often decorated with a lemon flavoured glace icing and decorated with coloured sugar strands.
I just decorated mine with some traditional eggs which my husband brought back from a visit to Kiev a few years ago.

To see what other 'Russian' entries have been cooked up check back to Chris blog cooking around the world


  1. What a wonderful bread. I especially love the saffron and the cardamom in it. Thank you for joining us on our food trip to Russia and telling us a bit of your real trip to that same very place.

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