If you've been to Pascha in an Orthodox country in Eastern Europe - Russia, Ukraine, even Georgia - then you've seen the dozens and dozens of kulichi in baskets waiting to be blessed on the holiday. They're a standard part of every Pascha basket and Bright Week meal, and are pleasantly versatile, working well when fresh and slathered in syrnaya paskha and when older, toasted, and eaten with butter, jam, or another spread.
I inherited the basics of my recipe from either my priest's wife or my first godson's mother - my apologies to both of you for not remembering who! - and have tweaked it over the years as I've grown more comfortable making it and experimented with what I like. It's a good, basic recipe to start with, and very tweakable if you find your tastes don't line up with mine :-).
2 packages of quick-rise yeast
1/2 cup of warm water
1/4 cup of sugar
1 1/2 cups of scalded milk
3/4 cups of melted unsalted butter
1 teaspoon of vanilla
1 teaspoon of almond extract (optional)
1 teaspoon of essence of orange (optional)
1/2 cup of sugar
1/2 teaspoon of cardamom (optional)
1/2 cup of slivered almonds or crushed pecans (optional)
Zest of 2 lemons or 1 teaspoon of lemon juice
3 eggs (beaten)
3/4 cups of **golden raisins
6 cups of all-purpose flour
4 40-ounce metal ***cans
1 cup of powdered sugar
5 teaspoons of lemon juice
*If you use salted butter don't add any extra salt!
**If you must use regular raisins, do so, but don't go advertizing what you've done ;-).
***Like you would buy canned fruit in. Crucial: Make sure they don't have that inner rim some of them are made with or all your efforts will end in ruin! Also, if you're wanting to make smaller loaves to freeze or give away on Pascha, feel free - I mentioned the four cans just to give an idea of how many you'll need (160 ounces worth!).
1) Lord, bless!
2) Mix the warmer water and 1/4 cup of sugar in a small bowl, sprinkle with the yeast, and set aside.
3) In a large bowl combine the scalded milk, 1/2 cup of sugar, melted butter, flavorings, cardamom, a pinch of salt, and the lemon zest. Once the mixture is lukewarm add the yeast mixture followed by the eggs, raisins, and nuts and mix everything thoroughly.
4) Gradually beat the flour into the mixture until it's all combined. The dough should be a little stickier than regular bread dough.
5) Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 20 to 30 minutes until the dough is "smooth and satiny." (I've been making kulich for years now and I'm still not 100% where that phrase comes from :-).)
6) Place the dough in a large, greased bowl, cover it with a towel, and set in a warm spot to double. (This should take somewhere between an hour and an hour and a half.)
7) Thoroughly grease the cans with some extra butter or vegetable oil.
8) Once the dough has doubled punch it down and divide into into portions half the size of the cans you're using and place them in their respective cans. Cover and place in a warm place and let the dough rise again until it's doubled.
9) If the dough gets over the rims of the cans grease an extra one or two, pinch off the excess, and put it in the extra can. (The dough will rise while baking, so if you don't do this you will, once again, find that all your efforts end in ruin :-).)
10) Once the dough in the cans has doubled cover the cans with aluminum, place them in the oven, and bake them at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for 20 minutes. Make sure the oven wrack is low enough that the kulichi's mushroom tops won't bump the ceiling of the oven :-).
11) Remove the aluminum and bake the kulichi for another 15 minutes. If the tops aren't a deep golden brown at that point, leave them in for another 5 or 10 minutes (or as long as necessary).
12) Once the kulichi are done remove them from the oven and let them cool for 10 to 15 minutes before running a knife down the sides of the cans (if the tops allow for that) and remove them. (Be gentle! It's still easy for them to tear at this point!) Place the kulichi on pillows to prevent bulging or sagging while they continue to cool.
13) Once the kulichi have cooled thoroughly mix the powdered sugar and the lemon juice and drizzle the frosting over the kulichi, decorating with sprinkles if desired. (If you want a thick frosting use less lemon juice.)
14) Take the finished kulichi to church on Pascha to have them blessed, smear some syrnaya paskha on them, and enjoy!