Of all the offerings in markets that cater to the Greater Sacramento area’s Russian, Ukrainian and eastern European populations, dairy products are a highlight for quality and richness.
Sour cream, butter and a dry crumbly curd variously called pot cheese, farmer cheese or Russian white cheese all figure in paskha, a sort of cheesecake molded into a squat, four-sided obelisk and served as the starring dessert during the Easter feast.
Paired with paskha is kulich, a yolky yeast bread kneaded with candied fruit, currants, almonds and sultanas and flavored with rum and saffron. If baked tall in a can, the unmolded kulich shows up with a big mushroom cap where the dough rose over the rim and baked in place. On top is an icing that dribbles down the sides like thick, white rain.
Kulich you can buy. But paskha is a home dessert that requires a trip to a Russian store.
I went shopping with Victoria Hagele from Ukraine. Her family is both Russian and Ukrainian. A few weeks earlier, the Siberian-born Hagele had returned from visiting her mother in a town just west of Kiev. The day she landed there, central Kiev turned violent over a trade deal with the European Union.
“We watched it on TV,” Victoria said of the rioting. “It was all happening in a small area in Kiev. We went shopping” as if nothing were amiss.
With a trip home fresh on her mind, Victoria and I entered Naroe’s in Carmichael. It’s a bright store she visits once a week.
On our way to the dairy case, we pass fresh pears, dill, beets and gherkin-sized cucumbers. We see half a dozen bulk fetas – French, Armenian, Bulgarian, Greek, Hungarian, Danish. The aisles are stuffed with buckwheat, grape leaves, Israeli jams, jars of roasted peppers and eggplant spreads.
Victoria stops at a large bin of apples selling for 89 cents a pound. When her family ate fruit, it was apples. “We didn’t have anything else.” A bittersweet memory, but one from home.
Naroe’s is also a wholesale bakery. Its Russian rye, sourdough, flat breads, pumpernickel and Friday challah are distributed to other European-style stores, including Good Neighbor European Deli and Market and Berezka European Market in West Sacramento.
Finally at the dairy case, we see an international array of butters, typical of most Russian stores, from Denmark, Lithuania and true Russian butter. Victoria spies one from Vologda, a nod to the northern Russian city famous for butter.
The sour cream includes the excellent and lush Canadian brand. Off to the side was a no-name container marked “Moska” (Moscow). Naroe’s owner, Julietta Zakaryan, says it arrives in bulk from Russia. She repacks it and sells it by weight. If you turn the tub upside down, it’s so dense it won’t fall out.
For the pot cheese, we saw Friendship from New York and small tubs of “white Russian cheese” at every store we stopped in. I bought bulk no-name pot cheese at Berezka.
If you want to make paskha so it resembles one Victoria might make, pick up a small pouch of vanilla sugar. “In the Soviet Union, we did not have vanilla extract, only vanilla sugar,” she said.
When you go to a Russian store, get ready to check out Russian-style – in a line. It’s the cashier’s job to also slice meats, cheeses and fish to order, customer by customer. Depending on whether the person in front of you has finished shopping or is only beginning, take a cue from Victoria and settle in for the wait. “It’s kind of nostalgic,” she says. “It comes from my upbringing in Soviet times.”
Victoria’s family recipe for paskha uses some advanced cooking skills. After she translated, I saw it involves curdling sour cream, milk and eggs. Curds are separated and mixed with butter, more eggs, sugar and the vanilla pouch and churned by hand for 45 minutes.
“It was a most holy experience for me,” she said of this pre-Easter duty. “When you do it right, your brain goes through everything. It’s like you become part of the Divine.”
Paskha is served with kulich. Naroe’s makes a colorful kulich already showing up in many Russian markets.
Elaine Corn is an award-winning cookbook author and former newspaper food editor.