Thursday, January 3, 2013

Grandma's Christmas Bread, Russian Kulich

Maybe it's because strokes have reduced my grandma's vocabulary to "yes" that I have lots of questions for her. One of my burning questions: Grandma, how did you make your Christmas bread? I asked my mom and several aunts to see if they knew where the recipe came from. Luckily for me, Aunt Elena had copied it down and she generously went out of her way to get it to me. She warned me that the bread never rose very well for her.

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.

I am so pleased with this bread; it's delicately fruity and not overly sweet.  We had our bread toasted with butter, alongside grapefruit halves and homemade eggnog.  Ben worked very hard with the grapefruit knife for the first time, a pleasant little kitchen chum. It was the perfect winter white morning outside, and then the sun broke over the breakfast table.

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 eggs
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.

e.  If you're going to lose all your words and be left with just one, isn't it beautiful that the word is "yes?"  I love you, Grandma.  I love making your bread and tasting memories.


Sew Blessed Maw [Judy] said...

what a touching story and what wonderful bread.
My heart goes out to grandma, but I just know, that if she was able to talk, she would tell you, how thrilled she is ,that you are remembering her baking this bread, and hunting the recipe down,and introducing it to your family.. I am proud of you too!!!
It sounds really good.. Kinda like fruit cake , just not filled to the brim with the fruit stuff..

You Can Call Me Jane said...


Jennifer Jo said...

This is a gorgeous post, Margo.

The bread is lovely. I especially loved your "c" note. La la la la la!

Julian said...

How very beautiful. Both of my grandmothers died this year within months of eachother. Everyday is a day I try to keep them alive. Using their dishes,cooking their recipes,singing their songs. They both were different,and both taught me very different,but also very good life grandmthers and I lived in two different states. I talked to them on a regular basis,but wish I could have them back for one last hug. Hold your grandma close today. Youre doing a very beautiful thing by making her bread.
Thankyou for sharing.

jenny_o said...

Note c is hilarious!

Note e is heartwarming and heartwrenching all in one.

It is a beautiful thing to see people honouring the elderly in their lives.

Marcia said...

What an informative and touching mini-documentary! And thanks for sharing the recipe :-)

Meryl said...

I love these old family recipes. I find that other people often don't "get" why I'm such a zealot about my grandmother's stuffing, for instance, but it's all about the memories associated with it.

Anna said...

Food is such a wonderful way to preserve family history, tradition, and love.

BLD in MT said...

Well, however Easter bread ended up becoming your family Christmas bread I really, really enjoy stories like this. Food is so often history and memory as well as sustenance.

Deanna Beth said...

What a ver nice post...

A said...

This is so very lovely.

Tammy said...

My German Mennonite grandma made Kulich for Easter. We have ancestors who sought refuge in Russia though, so that's probably the "why" for my ancestors making it at Easter time. My grandma's was darker brown, she made it in a coffee can and stood it up on a platter and sprinkled coconut died green around it, with Easter egg candy here and there. It was drizzled with icing. Yum. I have tried making it once but it didn't turn out. Maybe next Easter I can try again!