One enduring tradition in Orthodox churches is the Easter food basket, taken on Saturday or Sunday to the church to be blessed by the priest. A typical basket includes the foods given up during Lent, like ham or sausages, eggs, butter, cheese, and a sweet eggy bread.
Pascha (pronounced paska) cheese is classic Easter basket food. Sometimes it's called Russian ice cream because of its smooth, rich texture, but it's really an unbaked cheesecake that is slowly pressed in the fridge for several days to remove excess moisture. It's incredibly rich but also light and refreshing - a creamy dessert with sweet, brandy-spiked cherries.
We like this because it can be prepared so far ahead of time, and it makes such a pretty presentation when unmolded.
Pascha Cheese with Cherries
2 24 ounce containers of cottage cheese, drained and pressed 1 1/2 cups whole cherries 1/2 cup Kirsch 1/4 cup sugar 4 eggs yolks 1 cup sugar 1 cup cream 1/2 pound unsalted butter, softened 2 tablespoons vanilla extract
Drain the cottage cheese by pressing as much water as possible out through a sieve, then hanging in cheesecloth over a bowl overnight.
Heat the Kirsch and sugar in a small sauce pan to boiling, then add the cherries and remove from the heat. Let steep for several hours or overnight.
Beat the egg yolks with sugar until creamy and lightened. Beat in the cream and put into a small saucepan. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until it reaches 160ºF and coats the back of a spoon. Do not let it boil. Remove from the heat and let cool.
Combine the cheese, butter and vanilla in a food processor. Blend until it is very smooth.
Whip the cheese mixture with the custard until fully blended and smooth. Drain the cherries and fold them in gently.
Refrigerate for several hours, then turn into a double thickness of cheesecloth. Place in a washed new terracotta flower pot and weight with canned goods or something else heavy. Put in a dish to catch the syrup and refrigerate for at least three days. Drain and rinse the syrup out of the bottom dish every day.
When ready to serve, turn out of the cheesecloth onto a platter. Using a knife dipped in hot water, smooth out the indentations and texture of the cheesecloth. Garnish with mint and berries.