Sunday, April 16, 2006

Kulich and Paskha: A Quick Jaunt to Russia

With two young kids and a limited budget, I’m not likely to find myself heading off on an overseas vacation any time soon. But I’ve discovered a substitute that seems to work almost as well for my body and spirit—a trip to one of the Bay Area’s many wonderful ethnic bakery/restaurants. On this Easter weekend, I dragged my family into San Francisco to the Cinderella Bakery on Balboa St. Yeah, I know the real Russian Easter is next week, but we’re all caught up in dyeing eggs and decorating the German Easter tree, so it seemed like the right time to buy some kulich (Russian fruit bread, like pannetone) and paskha (a mixture of sweetened farmer cheese mixed with candied fruit). I also picked up a delicious, over-sized honey poppyseed roll and a sweet cheese roll for breakfast. This kids had butter cookies, which got rave reviews. As my husband and I savored our morning pastries, we both observed that some subtle flavoring made us feel like we were suddenly in a foreign land. It really did bring back those European vacations of our DINK lives, when each day would find us at a café or patisserie sampling the local sweet. I’m not sure if it’s the yeast, the egg coating, a spice or just plain baker’s magic, but there was some sorcery at work on the taste buds. This morning we had the official Easter breakfast. Cinderella Bakery’s kulich is not as rich and fruity as some of the less authentic versions I’ve tried at local bakeries, but it was nice, especially topped with the sweet cheese. This may become an annual spring ritual, along with the vegetarian matzo soup and the various charosets (classic apple walnut plus nouveau pistachio and dried cranberry) and the chocolate eggs.

I first got the hankering for kulich and paskha at Easter from Catherine Cheremeteff’s food memoir, A Year of Russian Feasts. Her description of the monastery where they prepare these Easter treats by the thousands really stayed with me—plus I know the proper way to eat a kulich is to slice off the decorated top, then slice rounds to pass around, then replace the top when you are finished for the next round.

Food memoirs are definitely my favorite form of travel these days—they’re quick and low-calorie, unless thinking about food puts on the pounds, and sometimes it seems that way. Other favorite food writers include Ruth Reichl, whose books are about so much more than food. Tender at the Bone and Garlic and Sapphires are the two I’ve read so far. I reread Jane and Michael Stern’s cleverly amusing histories of American eating about once a year, Square Meals and American Gourmet. The latter has a great chapter on food for lovers, mid-century style! The combination of humor, history and recipes is right up my alley. The Stern’s have come out with a memoir, Two for the Road: Our Love Affair with American Food, which looks interesting. Sometimes on their travels, they’d eat TEN meals a day. Better to read about than do….

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