Eastern in moscow: kulich -- and mud

At long last, it looked as though Moscow might have spring for Easter. Wooden sleds had given way to yellow, green, and orange baby carriages, the faces of their tiny occupants visible for all to see. Throughout the winter, babies out in the cold had been swaddled and bundled in huge comforters tied together with either red (girls) or blue (boys) satin bows, and the top flaps had been closed over to keep out the cold.

Then the sun had peeked through with a little warmth. The flaps were pulled back, and babies in parks were turned to face the sun and receive their first sun baths.

It looked and felt as though spring had come -- but it hadn't.

Sudden unexpected snowstorms ended a short spell of fine days. A clean white foot of snow was dumped overnight on unsuspecting streets. Now it is melting. Pools of muddy water lie everywhere. Passing cars shower pedestrians with brown sprays.

Ankles sink into deep puddles. Children come home from school covered in mud. And grandmothers walk their baby carriages with the top flaps down again.

Throughout it all, however, many a Russian household pushes on with preparations for Easter. The main worry this year is not so much the weather as a shortage of ingredients for the traditional Russian Orthodox Easter meal.

The Orthodox Easter happens to fall on the same days as the West celebrates -- April 4, 5, and 6. The farmers' markets, or rynoks, are filled with brightly colored hand-painted wooden eggs, wooden dishes, matroshka dolls, bird whistles, and lidded pots.

These have been painted during the long winter months. The bright pinks, greens, and purples are a contrast to the nearby vegetable stalls, which display bunches of parsley and white cabbage and very dirty carrots for lack of more exciting wares.

The eggs still cost 50 kopecks (76 cents) each. Traditionally they have church domes painted on them with the letters "XB" -- the first letters of the two Russian words meaning "Christ is risen."

But some artists have branched out, and there are dacha scenes complete with telegraph poles; fairy tales; television cartoon characters; and this year, symbols of the Moscow Olympics.

At one market, fortunate foreigners (the seller only offers them to Westerners) have been able to buy real hard-boiled eggs with handpainted gold-domed churches or icons on them. They cost five rubles ($7.60) each and are said to last about five years if you don't drop them first.

The Thursday before Good Friday is the day when Russians dye and paint their own Easter eggs, symbols of life in the tomb. They use onion skins for saffron colors, beet juice for red, birch leaves or moss for green, and laundry bluing for blue. Then a fast begins until Easter Sunday, when it is broken by eating the traditional kulich and paskha.

Kulich is a tall, aerated cylindrical yeast cake that must rise three times and cooks for only seven to ten minutes -- apparently the hardest moment in its creation. No one must come into the kithchen, open the door, or even whisper for fear that it won't rise to the great height needed to give it a mushroom-like form and light texture.

It is iced and decorated with sprigs of paper flowers and the letters "XB."

Russians can buy kulich at local bread stores for about 2 rubles ($3.04) each. Despite official state atheism in the Soviet Union, the tradition of the Orthodox Easter is strong, and state bread stores can still sell their kulich.

Paskha is a mixture of strained cottage cheese, egg yolks, thick cream, sugar , vanilla, and candied fruit. It is pressed and weighted down for two days into a special mold lined with cheese cloth.

The molds should be handmade of oak or birch and pyramid-shaped to represent the hill on which Jesus was crucified. On the insides are carved symbols of Easter -- "XB," a cross, an angel, and a tulip.

Both kulich and paskha are wrapped in a clean white napkin and taken to the nearest church to be blessed by the priest.

This year it is a muddy walk to the church as huge wet snowflakes keep trying to dampen the Easter spirit.

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