CONSTANTINE de Stackelberg, who is listed as baron in the phone book and mister in the Green Book, who has the "de" in the Green Book, but is without it in the phone book, has been making paska for 40 years. This despite the fact that paska is a Russian Easter cheese dessert and de Stackelberg, who is known as Steno to his friends, is of Baltic nobility, though born in St. Petersburg. This despite the fact that most Balts were Protestant, not Russian Orthodox. This despite the fact that nobleman of de Stackelberg's generation seldom learned how to cook.
But for Steno de Stackelberg, "Easter without paska isn't Easter." As a young man he lived in England and was homesick for some of the foods he knew as a child in Estonia, where his family had lived for 700 years. "We came to Christianize. We were part of the Holy Roman Empire. All of the upper class in Estonia was of German origin," he explained, sitting in the living room of his memorabilia-filled apartment.
There is an artist's rendition of his family castle from the mid-16th century later destroyed by fire, and there are pictures of the last castle rebuilt on the same site by his family between 1911 and 1917, when de Stackelberg lived there. By that time it had grown considerably in size and had 48 rooms. There are dozens and dozens of pictures of famous ancestors, plates emblazoned with the family crest, which the de Stackelbergs have been ordering from the same firm in Sweden since 1650. And there are Russian artifacts because the family lived half the year in St. Petersburg and half the year in Estonia when de Stackelberg's father was master of ceremonies to the czarist court from 1902 to 1917.
But it is not the family's connection with the czarist court that makes de Stackelberg so attached to paska . Estonia was part of Russia for 200 years, and many of its customs are widely observed in the Baltic.
The de Stackelbergs -- his American-born wife Garnett is a society and travel reporter -- observe Easter when the rest of Western world does, on April 19, but with Russian customs. Each year those invited to Easter lunch are treated to a typical Russian buffet. There are the zakuska , appetizers, which include pate, sardines, kippered herring, kippered sturgeon, caviar, cheeses and french bread, washed down with the esential ingredient of any Russian feast, ice cold vodka. Ham, turkey, Russian salad of beets, potatoes and cucumbers bound together with mayonnaise, Swedish meatballs. Easter eggs and red and white wines follow.
Then comes the Easter specialty for which de Stackelberg yearned as a young man in England, paska . It is accompanied by kulich , a yeasty, buttery, raisin-filled sweet bread.More than any other foods, they symbolize Russian Easter. Paska , sometimes spelled pashka and sometimes paskha , is the Russian word for Easter. It is also the Russian equivalent of cheesecake, or perhaps the forerunner of the modern cheesecake. Like any national dish, it has a dozen variations: one so simple it requires only three ingredients, pot cheese, butter and eggs; another that calls for raspberries. But most of the recipes call for raisins, nuts and candied fruit. They also call for the kind of pot cheese that is difficult to find in Washington, dry and unsalted. So the cook must make do with the commercially available pot cheese, getting the least salty one possible and draining it well, de Stackelberg says. A Jewish delicatessan is likely to have better pot cheese than what you can buy in the supermarket.
Somewhere along the way, some Americans have gotten paska confused with kulich . Occasionally, and as recently as this year, recipes called paska have turned out to actually be recipes for kulich . One theory that would explain this case of mistaken identity suggests that Russian-Americans occasionally refer to kulich as paska bread, meaning the bread served with paska . The scenario is easy enough to figure out from there.
Traditionally, paska is molded in a specially constructed five-sided mold, a cut-off pyramid. The best ones have an "XB" carved on the inner sides so that when the paska is unmolded it is already decorated. "XB" are the Cyrillic initials of christos voskres, "Christ is risen!" de Stackelberg made his own mold out of plywood many years ago.
The mold is not essential for pasha . A large clay flowerpot with a 3-quart capacity will work. The form or pot is lined with cheesecloth, which helps the paska slide out easily. paska can be served alone, but should be served with kulich . It keeps for a week in the refrigerator.
The "XB" can be added as decoration as de Stackelberg does with raisins.
De Stackelberg has passed his paska -making talents on to his son, Sandy, who assists whenever he is in town. De Stackelberg's wife makes the kulich . STENO DE STACKELBERG'S PASKA (12 to 16 servings) 3 pounds dry unsalted cottage cheese (use pot cheese) 1 pound unsalted whipped butter 2 1/2 cups sugar 1/2 pint sour cream 2 vanilla beans or 2 tablespoons vanilla extract 1 cup black currants 1 cup golden raisins 2 whole egg yolks 1 or 2 hard-cooked eggs, grated 1/4 pound chopped, blanched almonds 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 cup mixed candied fruit Cheesecloth Raisin, Easter eggs and a flower for decoration
A day ahead of putting the paska together, put the cheese through the fine blade of a meat grinder; place in double-thinkness cheesecloth and hang it in the refrigerator, over a bowl. Let it drain for 24 hours. Squeeze cheese in cloth to remove any additional liquid.
Bring butter to room temperature. Cream with sugar for 1/2 hour in electric mixer. Place drained cottage cheese in container large enough to hold all ingredients. Mix in sour cream. Add sugar-butter mixture. Scrape seeds out of vanilla beans and add with remaining ingredients to cheese misture (or add vanilla extract); beat well with electric mixer.
Line paska mold, 3-quart flowerpot or several smaller flowerpots with double thickness of cheesecloth, leaving enough to fold over top of paska . Spoon in paska ingredients and cover with edges of cheesecloth. Place mold(s) in another container, keeping bottom of mold from touching surface so paska can continue to drain. Weight the top of the paska with a plate and a brick or several heavy cans. Refrigerate overnight.
To serve, unmold and remove cheesecloth. Make "XB" with raisins on side of paska , surround with Easter eggs and top with flower.