Sunday, April 8, 2012

Assimilating Easter

When asked about my ethnic background, I usually say something like "mutt" or "Heinz 57," because my forbears on both sides of the family came from all over Europe.  Melting Pot R Us.

My mother's father's family was originally German Swiss, but they moved to Russia in the mid-19th century and stayed there for a couple of generations, intermarrying with the locals and copying their recipes, before moving on to America in the dead of night under assumed names (this was to avoid having the oldest son drafted by the Tsar).  As a result, much of the food that came down to us from them is an odd mix of German and Russian.  Some of the dishes are basically German but with Russian flourishes of sour cream sauce.  Some of them are Russian cuisine with new German names.  One of my favorite Easter traditions falls into that latter category.

Traditional Russian families used to (and may still) bake a special Easter bread called Kulich that's supposed to look like a domed Russian Orthodox church, and they have it blessed by a priest before eating it.  My mother's family called it Osterbuske and, as good Congregationalists, skipped the blessing.  It's halfway between roll dough and bread dough and usually includes cinnamon and raisins, with frosting drizzled on the top.  Some families add nuts and candied fruit.  I understand that special Kulich pans are available, but my family baked them in metal coffee cans; the "dome" comes from the dough puffing up over the top of the can.  My mother always served her Osterbuskes on a bed of green-dyed coconut, surrounded by jelly beans and those little bunnies made of the same stuff as candy corn.  After everyone had oohed and aahed, she sliced it into rounds and briefly toasted it under the broiler - VERY briefly, so the frosting wouldn't all melt off.

This was the first year ever that neither my mother nor my aunt Lu made Osterbuskes.  It didn't really feel like Easter today without them; even when I lived in New York, my mother would make a miniature version in a baked bean can and express mail it to me.  I guess I'll have to pump her for the recipe and next year take up the mantle of chief family baker myself.

"I lied on my Weight Watchers list.  I put down that I had 3 eggs... but they were Cadbury chocolate eggs."  ~Caroline Rhea

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