I rarely go into baking yeast cakes or bread, but sometimes there is definitely room for that in life. Exactly like I do enjoy making my own cakes for Christmas, some years I do like baking my own kulichi for Easter. They are not really labor intensive, but they certainly are time consuming. However there are times when spending a thoughtless half a day around the kitchen making something homey the same as times and times before feels just right. Especially given that proper home made kulichi are incredibly good. None of the bought counterparts will ever get close to them.
In essence kulichi are yeast fruit cakes. What makes them special is their richness - I mean LOTS of butter. They turn out very soft, airy and crumbling. So they are wonderful together with pascha - traditional cheesecake we also make for Easter. However it is not at all necessary. You can easily serve them just with tea or add some plain cream cheese on the side.
I really like adding good vanilla and lemon zest to the dough. So do I like soaking the fruits in rum or brandy. Both are perhaps not traditional, but do add a lot to the flavor. Making kulichi does take some time just because yeast dough needs to rise a couple of times before you bake it. But there is nothing really complicated about the process.
Kulichi (Russian Easter cakes)
makes 4 cakes (around 400 g each)
400 g all purpose flour
125 ml of milk
180 g sugar
10 g (1 packet) of rapid rise yeast
2 egg yolks
1/4 teaspoon salt
zest of one lemon
1 teaspoon vanilla
250 g butter, softened
180 g mixed fruit (some combination of raisins, sultanas, candied cherries, currants, apricots, pineapple and citrus peel)
50 ml rum or brandy
200 g icing sugar
juice of 1 - 2 lemons
Soak the fruit in rum or brandy and set aside.
Heat the milk till it's a little warmer then your finger.
Mix half of the milk with yeast and a teaspoon of sugar, cover and leave for 15 minutes. The yeast should start bubbling. Do not skip this step even if your yeast package instructions say you should mix the yeast straight into the flour. As the dough is very rich the yeast needs a little help to activate here.
Combine the rest of the milk with all the remaining sugar, egg yolks, salt, lemon zest and vanilla and stir till most of the sugar dissolves.
Place the flour in a medium bowl. Add the milk mixture and the yeast mixture. By hand or using a dough hook stir everything together until you get even dough.
Knead the dough for 10 minutes by hand or for 5 minutes with a dough hook of electric mixer. Do not skip this step. It is needed to make sure kulichi do not go stale too early.
Cover the dough and let it stand in a warm place till it doubles in size. It should take 30 - 45 minutes. If it's not very warm at your home, use your oven heated to 30C.
Once the dough has risen, add the fruits together with rum or brandy and softened butter. Mix all together. It's much better to use a dough hook of electric mixer here, doing it by hand really takes a lot of effort.
Pans we use for baking kulichi are mug-shaped (tall, cylindrical, approximately 400 ml in volume) - the recipe is enough for four of these. If you can't get them, just use two 9 inch loaf pans lined with baking paper. Or use a muffin pan (small kulichi are very cute too), lined with paper muffin cups.
Fill your pans with dough to 1/3 of their height (not more, the dough will rise a lot). Cover with a towel or cling film and let stand in a warm place till the dough doubles in size.
Preheat the oven to 160C. Once the dough has risen, place kulichi in the oven. If your shapes are around 400 ml each, baking will take around 50 minutes. For a loaf pan it can take longer. For muffin cups it will take around 30 minutes. In any case it is safer to cover the kulichi with foil or baking paper 20 minutes after you start baking to prevent them from burning on the top.
Kulichi are ready when they are dark brown on top and a wooden stick inserted deep in the middle of the cake comes out clean and dry. Take them out of the oven and let cool down in their shapes on a rack.
Once kulichi are cool, take them out of their shapes and decorate them. To make the icing, place the icing sugar in a small bowl. Add enough lemon juice to get thick and creamy paste. Spoon the paste on the kulichi to cover the top. Let the icing set for 15 - 20 minutes.
Serve the kulichi with tea. Pascha cheesecake or plain cream cheese are wonderful complements to them.
Pascha (Russian Easter cheesecake)
Schneken (German sticky cinnamon buns)
Kovrizhka, grandma's spice cake (vegan version)
Christmas Black cake (Rum cake)