Breads that are shaped by tradition

Kay Plaskowitz remembers nearly four decades ago being driven by her husband to Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church in Baltimore while punching down the pan of rising bread dough on her lap. As she carried the dough into the basement kitchen to bake during the Sunday service, she had a plan.

Previously, the church had tried to sell homemade noodles at its fundraising festival, but they weren't very popular. This time, the smell of fresh bread wafting through the building and the taste of the loaves warm from the oven convinced Plaskowitz's fellow congregants that she had a better money-making option.

"We made 30 or 40 loaves," Plaskowitz said. "We sold them all in about half an hour."

This year, over five Saturdays leading up to the 38th annual Russian Festival, Plaskowitz directed about 20 volunteers in preparing roughly 1,000 loaves of bread, which have become a signature item for the church fundraiser. The festival will run noon-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday and noon-6 p.m. Sunday and will also offer other Russian food, a tea room, crafts, shopping and live entertainment.

Among the breads for sale are traditional rye bread, poppy seed rolls, nut rolls and cheese braids. Another customer favorite is the fancy bobkas: sweet white breads with raisins and chocolate or cherry filling.

In her grandparents' time, in Russia, rye bread was eaten all year, but certain kinds of white bread were made for holidays and special occasions, said Plaskowitz, who now lives in Columbia. Then, and now, a bobka is considered a treat, she said, and because it is round, it "reminds people of the grandmother, her shape."

Plaskowitz has belonged to Holy Trinity all her life, and she and her husband enjoy baking and learning about Russian food. She said she has found her bread recipes in cookbooks and in the newspaper over the years and then fine-tuned them for large batches. She has also established a tightly run operation ensuring that the bread for the festival is completed her way, from flour to finished loaves.

"The dough has its own life cycle," said Susan Kuvelker, of Columbia, who is Plaskowitz's daughter and who has been helping with the festival baking since the beginning. "If you don't do the right thing at the right time, it tastes different."

On Oct. 1, the church bakers were making cherry bobkas. Kuvelker was part of the early team, arriving at the church's newly renovated kitchen at 7:30 a.m. with her sister, Debby Blaszak, also of Columbia, and Blaszak's husband and two daughters.

They were joined by church member Sandy Wanner, who started by boiling a large pot of water on the stove to make the air warm and humid. The women prepared the milk, butter, sugar, eggs and yeast. They added flour with the industrial mixer, and, as the first tubs of dough were set aside to rise, Plaskowitz's granddaughters made the filling of cherries and nuts and measured it into paper bowls.

Plaskowitz arrived around 9 a.m. to check on the bakers' progress and to oversee the dividing and weighing of the first tubs of dough. Then it was time to call in the next group of volunteers, who followed Plaskowitz's instructions to place the dough in round fruitcake pans, add the filling, and then make a circle of dough balls on the top.

Lidiya McCormack was one of several Russian immigrants who were part of the baking team that day. She said she was impressed at the way the church has kept traditions alive from the time of the tsars, even while many people living in Russia today do not.

"We come from Russia, and we don't know," about the traditional breads, said McCormack, who first arrived in New York 10 years ago, married an Irish man, and moved with him to Baltimore in 2010. "I like this church. I like very much this community," she said. "They keep the traditions for a long time."

More volunteers arrived to pull the pans from the pizza ovens that Plaskowitz said are the best for baking bread, to arrange the bread on cooling racks and to bag the loaves to be frozen until the festival. Anyone is welcome to help out, and over the years church members have brought neighbors, co-workers and interested friends who want to learn the process.

"If you are Russian or not, the bread tastes great," Kuvelker said. "The local bakeries don't make it any more."

"I think it is very heartfelt, actually," she said. "When you give up Saturday after Saturday after Saturday it's because it makes you feel good. It's a nice warm memory of your own grandmother.

Cherry Bobka

Makes: 2-3 loaves, depending on pan size

For the dough:

2 packages dry yeast

1/2 cup warm water

1 1/2 cups milk

3/4 cup butter

1 cup sugar

4 large eggs, room temperature

1 teaspoon vanilla

8-9 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup raisins

For the filling:

4 ounces cut-up maraschino cherries

1/3 cup chopped walnuts

1/3 cup brown sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

Heat the milk on low until it is almost scalding. Remove from heat, and stir in the butter until it is melted. Add the sugar and stir well. Beat the eggs slightly with a fork to break the yolks. When the milk/butter/sugar mixture is lukewarm, add the eggs. Place 1/2 cup warm water into a large mixing bowl. Add the yeast and stir until dissolved, about 5 minutes. Add the milk mixture to the yeast mixture. Add the vanilla, about half of the flour and the salt and blend well. Add the raisins and almost all of the remaining flour.

Knead the dough on a floured surface with the palms of your hands for at least 10 minutes. Add the remaining flour a little at a time if the dough is sticky. When the dough is smooth and elastic, place it in a lightly greased bowl, cover it with a tea towel and allow it to rise for about an hour until it doubles in bulk. Punch it down with your fist and let it rise again to double its bulk.

To make filling, mix cherries, walnuts, brown sugar and cinnamon together.

Then, with slightly floured hands, shape the dough into small balls. Place a layer of the balls in a greased pan. Add the filling. Place another layer of the dough balls on top, centering them away from the sides of the pan. Cover the dough and let it rise until it reaches the top of the pan. For a shiny, golden-brown finish, paint the top with a glaze made of one egg yolk mixed with 2 tablespoons of cold water.

Bake at 350 degrees in a preheated oven for about 45 minutes. When completely cool, decorate with a sugar glaze (1/2 cup confectioners sugar mixed with 1 teaspoon water or lemon juice) and maraschino cherries.

Note: A pan should be about one-third full when the dough and filling are placed in it and rise to the top before baking.

If you go

The 2011 Russian Festival runs noon-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday and noon-6 p.m. Sunday at 1723 E. Fairmount Ave. Information: or 410-276-6171.

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