Once I tasted paska at New York's famed Russian Tea Room, I knew I had to try to make it at home. A rich curd-cheese cake, paska is the traditional dessert for Russian Easter (April 26). Candied fruit is used to decorate the top with the letters XB, to signify the Cyrillic words for "Christ is risen." Sometimes, though, paska is simply decorated with a cross.
Years ago, Russians used a carved wooden mold to create the cake's traditional pyramid shape. I carefully prepared my paska in a new clay flowerpot as the piece de resistance for a friend's Easter dinner. Not wanting to trouble her, I did the unmolding and decorating at home and cautiously carried my glorious creation to the car for the 1/2 -mile-long trip. By the time I arrived, however, the center had sunk and the paska leaned rakishly to one side, a shadow of its former beautiful self. My only consolation was the magnificent taste of this rich holiday treat. I know now that the only safe way to transport paska is in the flowerpot.
The paska recipe below was obligingly provided by Paul Igenito, chef of the Russian Tea Room. When I was growing up in New York, the Tea Room oozed glamour, and it still does. Its clientele then, as now, included Broadway stars, ballet dancers and musicians popping over from Carnegie Hall next door. A New York landmark since it opened in April 1927, the restaurant celebrates its 65th anniversary this month with a special Easter menu because "this holiday personifies the special personality and history of the Russian Tea Room like no other," says owner Faith Stewart-Gordon.
2 1/2 pounds farmer's cheese
1 cup butter, very soft but not melted
1 cup heavy cream
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups superfine sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup mixed diced candied fruits
1 cup golden raisins, plumped in hot water and drained
1/2 cup chopped, blanched almonds
1-2 tablespoons brandy, rum or rosewater
7-inch new clay flowerpot with drainage hole
cheesecloth to line pot
Have all ingredients at room temperature. In a large bowl break cheese into small pieces. Alternately add butter and heavy cream, beating with a wooden spoon until mixture is very smooth, at least 10 minutes. (Electric mixers tend to get clogged with the thick mixture.) In another bowl, beat together eggs and sugar until very thick and light. Add to cheese mixture gradually, beating until well blended. Beat in vanilla. Reserve 1/4 cup candied fruit and 1/4 cup raisins for garnish. Beat remaining candied fruit, raisins, almonds and brandy into cheese mixture until well mixed.
Wash and dry flowerpot. Line it as smoothly as possible with several layers of cheesecloth, letting 5 inches hang over the rim. Carefully spoon paska into pot and press it down firmly. Fold cheesecloth over top and place a plate with a diameter smaller than that of the flowerpot on top. Put a weight (can, brick, etc.) on the plate. Set flowerpot on a rack on another plate to drain at room temperature 1 to 2 hours. Pour off any accumulated liquid and place flowerpot on rack in the refrigerator. Refrigerate at least 24 hours to drain completely. Paska should be dry.
To serve, unwrap cheesecloth at top of the pot. Hold a serving plate over the flowerpot and flip it upside down to unmold. Carefully peel off cheesecloth. Decorate paska with a row of raisins circling the rim of the top and with 4 rows of glazed fruit and raisins running from top to bottom evenly spaced around the sides. Paska can be served alone or with kulich, a Russian Easter bread. Serves 14.