Celebrating spring with traditional Russian paskha

Preparing a paskha is one of the delights of celebrating Easter. Not only is this molded decorated cheesecake just plain fun to make, but it's a traditional food and adds an enjoyable dimension to Easter as well as to the paskha itself.

Just as hot cross buns were once restricted to Good Friday but now made throughout the Lenten season, so was a paskha served only on Easter. Originally a Russian dish, a traditional paskha is formed by a four-sided wooden mold that shapes the cheese desert into a pyramid. The mold may be embossed either with the shape of a paschal lamb, a Russian Orthodox cross, or the Cyrillic letters XB meaning "Christ is Risen." When the mold is removed, the impressions are left on the paskha.

Most paskhas are rich in cream cheese and sour cream, the latter a favorite in everyday Russian cooking. The other part of the paskha tradition is a kulich or koulitch. This fruited bread-like-a-cake is the Russian Easter loaf and is eaten with slices of paskha. A kulich is baked in cylinder molds such as coffee cans, filled with currants and almonds, top-coated and dribbled with a simple white icing. Rich Paskha 1 1/2 pounds cream cheese, softened 1/2 cup sour cream 1/2 cup sugar 1/2 cup sweet butter, softened 3 medium eggs Grated rind of 1 lemon Golden raisins Sliced blanched almonds Tart cherries

Blend cream cheese, sour cream, sugar, and butter. Beat in eggs one at a time. Add lemon rind. In a large saucepan, cook mixture over medium heat; stir constantly. At the threshold of boiling, remove from heat.

Cool, stirring frequently. Pour into mold. Use plate to weight down mixture. Refrigerate overnight. Remove from mold. Decorate with raisins, almonds, and cherries. Serves 8 to 10. Kulich 2 tablespoons dry yeast 1/2 cup warm water 1/2 cup honey 5-6 cups unbleached all-purpose flour 1/2 cup sweet butter, softened 4 eggs 1 cup all-purpose cream 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/3 cup blanched almonds, chopped 1/3 cup citron, chopped 1/2 cup currants

Dissolve yeast in water in large bowl. Stir in 1/4 cup honey. Mix in 1 cup flour. Place in warm location for 1 1/2 hours.

Blend rest of honey and butter. Beat in eggs one at a time. Stir in cream. Combine with yeast mixture. Mix in salt and rest of flour. Add almonds, citron , and currants.

Knead until smooth and elastic, adding only small amounts of flour to prevent sticking. Place in greased cylinder molds to about 2/3 full. Let rise in warm location to top of molds. Bake at 350 degrees F. for 1 hour or until golden on top.

Unmold and cool. Sprinkle with confectioners' sugar. To serve, turn on side and slice into rounds. Makes 2 to 3 breads.

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