I love, love, love the holidays! To me, like most folks, they are synonymous with family, friends, and, of course, good food.

I especially favor their eves, with all sorts of delicious smells wafting from the kitchen, company flocking over, kids being so excited they have a hard time going to sleep, last-minute grocery runs, final touches . . .

This pleasant hustle and bustle is what I look forward to every holiday.

And this Easter was no exception. Kate and Slava came over the day before and spent the night at our house. We set out around 8 a.m. the next morning on a three-hour drive up north to Brevard County’s Bonsteel Beach that I’d picked out for our celebration.

secluded beach

Bonsteel Beach, Florida

Brevard County, Florida

Florida beach

I craved peace, quiet, seclusion. I wanted to have my family all to myself one last time before we might be moved.

Bonsteel Beach turned out to be a thin strip of shell-infused sand outlined by the most gorgeous shoreline I’d seen. Natural. Pure. And very old Florida-like. Hidden by a fifteen-foot sand dune, it stretched for miles into the soft mist of the ocean vapors brought on by the intense tides.

old Florida

Unmarred by condos, crowds, litter . . .

There were a couple of fishermen and a group of surfers nearby but they didn’t seem to disrupt the beauty of the locality. It looked like they belonged there making the picture complete. 

fishing

We took long walks along the shoreline, the white foam of the crashing waves tickling our feet. And although the sun was coming down strong, the air felt cool. I kept my husband’s sweater on the whole time. It looked big and baggy on me but I like the feelings of ease and coziness loose-fitting clothes emanate. “Comfort-y”, as Nicole says.

frolicking at the water edge

I’d had it ready the night before.

Nicole chased after pelicans, collected shells, and built sandcastles.

summer fun

sand sculptures

And then, there was food.

We enjoyed okroshka, a medley of finely diced raw radishes, English cucumber, scallions, boiled creamer potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, bologna, and dill dressed with kvas, a traditional Russian non-alcoholic beer-like beverage fermented from rye bread.

cold vegetable soup

In Russia, okroshka is known as a cold soup since the ratio of chopped veggies to kvas is similar to that of cereal to milk. It is a summertime staple yielded by the first crops of the warm season.

Russian summer staple

Okroshka

We usually eat it with a dollop of sour cream and a dab of mustard stirred in with a spoon.

So green, light, and refreshing, with a hint of spice.

I always asked for okroshka whenever we went to my granddad’s dacha on the outskirts of my hometown Kirov. Dacha is a summer cottage that a lot of Russians have to escape to in the heat of the summer and to indulge in the laborious, yet joyful, therapeutic, and very rewarding, business of gardening.

By the time we would come and bring kvas, my grandparents would have boiled a big pot of freshly picked potatoes, still warm wrapped in a quilt. We would put the kvas away in the fridge to cool while we’d sit down at the table to help dice up the veggies.

Florida's beaches

The young potatoes were on the small side; some were as small as the biggest green peas, and then chopping them seemed absolutely unnecessary. We wouldn’t even peel them in such a case.

I loved my okroshka with just potatoes, skin and all, scallions, radishes, and dill. They were all garden fresh and picked minutes before our arrival. The scallions were so fresh they oozed juice and stained my grandmother’s hands as she was cutting them up with scissors.

things to do at the beach

Granddad didn’t like kvas mixed in with his salad much and ate his potatoes warm with a slab of butter and a sprinkling of dill. After he was done with his salad, he’d wash it all down with a glass of ice-cold kvas.

I always wondered what the difference was but never asked. I was sure it was just as good.

It’s a good idea to dice up the veggies and combine them in a large portable bowl with a lid at home, so all you have to do at the beach is dress it up, serve, and eat. As a rule of thumb, the easiest outdoor meals are those that are prepped, cooked, and assembled at home or need minimal cooking on the site.

grilled seafood

Grilled Coconut Shrimp Kabobs

Vegetables and fruits are especially favorable since they require the least work—eat them raw or throw on the grill to intensify their flavor. A drizzle or two of olive oil and a pinch of each salt and pepper are most of the time all you need.

grilling

tomatoes

Mom's Homegrown Backyard Tomatoes

grapes

However simple, food always tastes more alluring outside.

Baked pirozhki are another picnic favorite of mine. Individual-sized baked buns stuffed with a variety of fillings, they make a perfect accompaniment for green leafy salads or cold soups, like okroshka. I made a bunch with a green, spring-induced filling of finely chopped hard-boiled eggs, scallions, and dill lightly moistened with canola oil.

baked buns

Baked Pirozhki Filled with a Mixture of Hard-Boiled Eggs and Scallions

Between okroshka and pirozhki, I used up pretty much all the eggs Nicole and I had colored the day before. What I forgot was to make a batch of deviled eggs. The Russian way. With Mother-in-law mustard. Kevin loves them. But that’s another story. Russian Orthodox Easter is May 5th.

A lot of my festive dishes, especially on the baking front, are traditional. They are reserved for special occasions and executed just once a year. Year in and year out. They might not be fast or easy but I like to invest time and effort into making special foods for special occasions.

It’s part of pre-holiday buzz.

Like my sweet coconut bread that I’ve been baking strictly for Easter for the last four years.

Coconut through and through, it’s studded with mixed dried fruits and bits of candied citrus peel, glazed with mildly sweet chocolate ganache and topped off with a generous handful of perfectly golden and fragrant toasted almonds.  

quick coconut bread

I start the prep for it a couple of days ahead of the celebration by making my own candied citrus peel and shredding one whole coconut by hand. Shredding releases coconut’s oil naturally and allows me to add less of if to the batter from a store-bought jar. This year my coconut bread turned out more coconut-y that ever; besides freshly shredded coconut, I also used fresh coconut water from the same coconut, organic coconut oil, and coconut flour. However, despite so much coconut, its flavor doesn’t overpower the other ingredients. Those alternative flours are fun to experiment with and they amaze and surprise me every time I use them.

Easter brunch

Gluten-Free Sweet Coconut Bread

roses

We couldn’t have enough of the bread although there was plenty—it took three loaves to perfect the recipe.

Super good and gluten free.

Happy Easter, everyone!

Recipe for Olga’s Original Gluten-Free Sweet Coconut Bread

Ingredients:

For the bread:

1. 3 cups (675g) freshly shredded coconut, divided

2. ¾ cup (180g) natural cane sugar

3. 1 ¼ (310ml) cups fresh coconut water, divided

4. 1 egg

5. 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

6. ½ cup (125ml) coconut oil, melted in a double boiler

7. 1 cup (225g) brown rice flour

8. ¾ cup (180g) coconut flour

9. ½ cup (120g) potato starch

10. ½ teaspoon xanthan gum

11. 2 teaspoon baking powder

12. ½ teaspoon baking soda

13. ¾ teaspoon table salt

14. ¾ cup (180g) raisins

15. ½ cup (120g) mixed citrus peel

16. ¼ cup (60g) dried currants

17. ¼ cup (60g) dried tart cherries

 

For the chocolate glaze:

1. 12 teaspoon all natural unsweetened cocoa powder

2. 10 teaspoons natural cane sugar

3. 3 tablespoons unsalted butter

4. 3 tablespoons hot milk

5. ½ cup (120g) sliced almonds, toasted

Directions:

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Coat bottom and sides of one 9-by-5-by-3-inch loaf pan with nonstick cooking spray and set aside. Soak raisins in 1 cup boiling water to plum them up and give them more moisture; drain.

2. In a large bowl, mix 2 ½ cups coconut with sugar and ¼ cup coconut water.

3. Beat in egg and mix thoroughly; stir in vanilla extract and coconut oil.

4. In a medium bowl, combine dry ingredients and add to coconut mixture.

5. Gradually, ¼ cup at a time, add remaining coconut water to make soft dough. Do not knead. The dough will be lumpy.

6. Stir in dried fruits and remaining ½ cup coconut.

7. Transfer to pan, smooth out top with back of a spoon and bake for 50 to 60 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean; remove from oven.

8. Cool in pan on wire rack for 30 minutes, then remove from pan and cool completely on rack.

9. To prepare chocolate glaze, place cocoa powder, sugar, butter, and milk in a double boiler and heat until smooth, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and pour over top of bread, using back of a spoon to help it spread if necessary; sprinkle with toasted almonds.

Makes 12 slices

Notes:

1. To open a fresh coconut, drill two holes on the bottom of the fruit where the dark spots appear. Drain water. Wrap the coconut in a kitchen towel and place it on a hard surface. Hit it with a hammer until the first crack appears. Hit it again along the crack line. Continue until it opens. Insert a knife in between the shell and the flesh and move it around to release the flesh. If you wish, you can peel the skin with a vegetable peeler. I usually leave it on for extra fiber. Rinse the coconut.

2. If you don’t intend to serve this bread to kids, you can soak raisins in red or white wine to intensify their flavor.

3. I used this recipe to make candied peel.

4. To toast almonds, spread them in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet and roast them in a 350ºF oven until they are golden and fragrant, about 7 to 10 minutes.

Recipe for Okroshka

Recipe credit: Russian folks

Ingredients:

1. 1 pound (450g) white creamer potatoes, boiled in their skins and peeled

2. 1 bunch radishes

3. 1 large English cucumber

4. 1 bunch scallions

4. 5 hard-boiled eggs, peeled

5. ½ pound (225g) bologna, cooked ham or boiled beef

6. ½ bunch dill

7. 6 cups (1.5L) kvas, found in Russian specialty shops and grocers

8. sour cream and mustard for garnish

9. sea salt and natural cane sugar to taste

Directions:

1. Finely dice potatoes, radishes, cucumber, eggs, and bologna and transfer to a large serving bowl.

2. Chop up dill and stir in.

3. Divide between 6 bowls and dress with kvas. You may vary amount of kvas to your taste.

4. Stir in a dollop of sour cream and/or a dab of mustard.

5. Add salt and sugar to taste.

 Serves 6

Notes:
1. All ingredients should be finely diced. Okroshka derives from the Russian крошка (crumb) and means “made of crumbs”.

2. Kvas is a very healthy drink rich in B vitamins and probiotics but can be hard to obtain in its traditional form. Commercially available varieties and mixes may contain preservatives and other chemical additives that compromise its health impacts.

I am working on my own recipe for homemade kvas and will share it with you soon.