Grandma made this bread every Christmas. It has a mixed reception in the family. I wasn't sure I remembered the exact taste, but I have a very clear memory of Tampa, Florida, in the 1980s at Aunt Elena's house on a quiet street in a development, on a shiny, sunny Christmas morning. I was standing next to the counter close to the screened-in porch, there was a toaster, and it was scenting up the kitchen toasting Christmas bread. Cousins were running and screaming everywhere and I was wearing shorts in the middle of winter. Lovely.
So I hunted around for the weird fruit-ish things in this bread and started a batch. Then, I googled the name, "Russian Kulich," which was also written on the recipe. Turns out, it's Russian Easter bread. Now I have another burning question for Grandma: Grandma, how did this Russian Easter recipe get into our Swiss-German family and why do you make it at Christmas, not Easter?
In 1994, I was in Russia over Easter time and I do recall eating a tall, eggy white bread. I do not recall fruit in the bread, but it was a gorgeously elaborate Orthodox Easter, so I'm sure I've forgotten some details.
Russian Kulich - Grandma's Christmas Bread
1 cup milk
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup butter
2 tsp. salt
2 Tbsp. yeast
1/4 cup warm water
2 cups white-whole-wheat flour
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
grated rind of 1 large lemon
grated rind of 1 orange
1/2 cup chopped almonds
1/4 cup dark raisins
1/2 cup citron (fruit cake mix)
1/4 cup chopped candied cherries
1. In a saucepan, heat milk until almost boiling. Turn off heat. Add sugar, butter, and salt. Stir. Set aside to cool to lukewarm.
2. Combine yeast with warm water in large bowl. Add lukewarm milk mixture and eggs.
3. Add 1 1/2 cups flour, either kind, and beat well with a sturdy whisk for 2 minutes.
4. Add the zest, nuts, and fruits. Stir.
5. Add enough flour to make a soft dough. Knead 5-8 minutes, until satiny. Form into a tight ball.
6. Lift up the ball of dough and pour a tablespoon of oil in the bowl. Rub the dough in the oil and oil the dough and the bowl. Put a damp kitchen towel over the dough in the bowl and allow to rise until nearly doubled - 1-2 hours or a little more.
7. Punch down and allow to rest for 10 minutes. Form 3 loaves, oil them, and place in greased 8x5 bread pans. Cover again with damp towel and allow to rise until almost double, maybe 1 hour.
8. Bake at 350 for 30-35 minutes. Turn out of pans to cool completely. Slice when cool. Excellent toasted with butter. Mom recalls that Grandma used to ice the tops of her loaves with confectioners sugar icing and then decorate them with cherries and green frosting leaves.
Notes on the recipe:
a. You can replace the white whole wheat flour with white flour, but I would not use regular whole wheat flour in this recipe; this is a delicate, eggy bread and the white whole wheat flour is unobtrusive.
b. Grandma's recipe called for candied orange peel, but I couldn't get my hands on any and didn't feel like making it; plus, I figured the fresh orange zest would give the bread a nice lift.
c. It's because this is a family recipe that I'm willing to use this crazy candied crap fruit. It's loaded with preservatives, coloring, and other stuff I can't pronounce and am pretending not to see. La la la la la, not listening!
d. Unlike Aunt Elena's, I think my bread rose just fine and baked up beautifully. I made sure to give it plenty of time to rise, however.