Friday, 29 March 2013

Pashka

It is hard to describe this without either sounding as though I am exaggerating...or as though I might be trying to put you off eating it. I think it's indescribable. The nearest thing to Ambrosia I have ever eaten?

I have heard it described as "Russian Easter Cake" but it really isn't like cake. My father described it as similar to "raw cake mixture" (don't forget how that was always so much nicer than the finished product). But unlike raw cake mixture, you really can eat large quantities of this without regretting it. My personal theory is that it's due to the sour ingredients offsetting the sweet in an impeccable combination. It is supposed to contain all the ingredients you are not supposed to eat during Lent.

The following recipe was handwritten for my mother by the granddaughter of a Russian woman - Kyra Mahoney - who, if my memory of family legend serves me correctly, left Russia as the revolution started. When my mother enthused and begged for the recipe, she was a little chary about disclosing it... Her daughter Chris, my mother's oldest friend, said that her mother would stand at the stove, stirring endlessly. These were pre-Google days. Eventually, Kate, her granddaughter, managed to obtain her Nan's recipe - and it is in front of me now: blue biro on green paper, and the ingredients in evidence on the paper. Here it is, unamended:

"1 lb cream cheese
1 lb cottage or curd cheese
8 oz butter
4 egg yolks
1 1/2 gills (6 fluid oz) sour cream
10 oz caster sugar
1 - 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla essence
6 oz blanched almonds (flaked)
4 oz seedless raisins
3 oz mixed candied peel

Mix cream and cottage cheese together and turn into a cheesecloth.

Leave in a cold place (not fridge) to drip overnight to make sure that cheese is really dry.

Next day, rub through a nylon or hair sieve.

Melt butter and allow to cool but not to set again.

Turn egg yolks and sour cream into a basin and mix together.

Add sugar and vanilla and whisk altogether for about 10 minutes or until sugar has dissolved. (Remember this was written before electric instruments were used).

Stir into the sieved cheese.

Add almonds, raisins and chopped candied peel and turn into a heavy saucepan.

Put the pan on a very low heat and cook stirring continuously.

When mixture shows signs of boiling (in about 1/2 hour) remove it from the heat at once (1st bubble) and stir until it is almost cold.

Take a sterilised flower pot (nearest approximation to a pashka mould) or a similar shaped vessel (not metal) of about 2 1/2 pint capacity with draining hole(s). Line it with cheesecloth and urn in prepared mixture.

Set the pot on a rack over a plate. Lay a piece of greaseproof or waxed paper over the mixture, set a saucer or small cake tin base in a plastic bag on top and weigh down about 2 lb weight.

Leave in a cold place/refrigerator if poss overnight.

Saucer must just fit inside lid of pot. We don't bother with greaseproof or plastic bag but fold excess muslin over top of pashka. I hope you like it."

Here is some commentary on the above, based on my having made it twice.

Bear in mind that the very first bit needs to be done in advance, but it takes fewer than 10 minutes: I recommend a Good Friday night and have an unhurried Easter Saturday making it: it doesn't actually take that long - say two hours before it's in the moulds and ready to go in the fridge. But one of the many points of this is that there is real pleasure to be derived in making it so give yourself plenty of time.

I use tea towels as my cheesecloth.

I use unsalted butter.

I use vanilla extract rather than essence.

This is the only recipe I know that uses gills as a unit of measurement.

The toughest part of this recipe is pushing the cream cheese and cottage cheese through the sieve!

There is no indication in this recipe as to when the butter is supposed to go in. I put it in once I've mixed the egg yolks and sour cream.

I approve of making it in a flower pot and have one that I use exclusively for Pashka. The photograph is of one made in London and eaten in Winchester.

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