Of all the offerings in markets that cater to the Greater Sacramento areas 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 Naroes in Carmichael. Its 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 didnt have anything else. A bittersweet memory, but one from home.
Naroes 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). Naroes 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, its so dense it wont 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. Its the cashiers 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. Its kind of nostalgic, she says. It comes from my upbringing in Soviet times.
Victorias 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. Its like you become part of the Divine.
Paskha is served with kulich. Naroes makes a colorful kulich already showing up in many Russian markets.
6451 Fair Oaks Blvd., Carmichael
Full-service, small grocery with fresh produce, flowers, dried mushrooms, imported juices, candy, chocolate, coffee, tea; vanilla pouch. Cold cuts, salami, bologna, bacon, cheeses and smoked fish. Breads made daily on premises, Easter kulich. Parking is in back.
GOOD NEIGHBOR EUROPEAN DELI MARKET
5111 College Oak Drive, Suite A, Sacramento
European cakes and pastries, international butters; large selection of imported chocolate, juices, candy; frozen rabbit and wild salmon; dried mushrooms, vanilla pouch; Naroes breads.
BEREZKA EUROPEAN MARKET
958 Sacramento Ave., West Sacramento
Bulk pot cheese, modest meat, fish, cheese case; international butters, Naroes breads and pre-Easter, only, Naroes kulich. Store is not visible from road; enter Riverbend Plaza Shopping Center lot and turn right between the buildings.
This easy recipe for paskha combines Victoria Hageles family recipe with Paskha Tsarskaya from A La Russe, A Cookbook of Russian Hospitality by Darra Goldstein.
3 pounds farmer cheese, dry pot cheese or Russian white cheese (do not use ricotta cheese)
4 whole eggs
2 sticks unsalted butter, in pats
2 cups Russian sour cream
2 egg yolks
2 cups bakers sugar (superfine)
1 vanilla pouch (available at Russian stores), or 1 vanilla bean, scraped
Fill a large bowl half full of ice. Its OK if it melts a bit until needed.
In a wide saucepan, blend the farmer cheese, 4 whole eggs, butter pats and sour cream. Over medium heat, bring the mixture slowly to a simmer, stirring with a rubber spatula until smooth, about 20 minutes; do not allow to boil.
Set the hot saucepan in the ice. Stir yolks, sugar and the contents of the vanilla pouch into the hot cheese, stirring gently and continuously until cool and the consistency of soft ice cream. Cover with plastic wrap and chill 1 to 2 hours.
Line a 2-quart flowerpot with several thicknesses of cheesecloth. Pour in the chilled cheese mixture, flapping excess cheesecloth over top. Set a small plate on top and weight it down with one or two canned goods. Set flowerpot into a tall bowl; let drain overnight or until excess liquid has been pushed through the hole in the flowerpot.
If desired, decorate with currants or candied fruit to form the Cyrillic letters XB (Christ is risen).
Elaine Corn is an award-winning cookbook author and former newspaper food editor.