Making the Easter Bread

Dear Reader, 

Happy Easter! May today’s joy of the Resurrection strengthen our spirits and guide us through future ordeals :).

View to the Altar and the iconostasis of St. Alexander Nevsky at the Easter vigil, April 30, 2016.
View to the Altar and the iconostasis of St. Alexander Nevsky at the Easter Vigil, April 30, 2016. That small dome visible has been made of the gold jewellery of Bulgarian women, donated to support the cathedral construction. 
Cardboard cases like this one were distributed among worshippers to help them bring the Holy Fire safely to their homes.
Cardboard cases like this one were distributed among worshippers to help them bring the Holy Fire safely to their homes.

On Saturday I made, for the first time in my life, the traditional Bulgarian sweet Easter bread called kozunak (козунак, accent on the final A), according to the recipe of my mother, who is a great cook. 

I am very happy with the result and wanted to share. 

However, I must say in advance that the dose is huge, so if you don’t plan on feeding an entire army, you may want to consider baking only half of it.

The ingredients you’ll need:

  • 1 kg fine white flour
  • 200 g butter
  • 200-300 g sugar (I baked with 200 g and the result is not very sweet which is OK for me. If you want a sweeter taste, put in more sugar)
  • 6 eggs
  • 1 cup fresh milk 
  • 35 g yeast
  • 1/4 to 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 table spoonfuls of mixed sultanas and raisins (or more, if you like)
  • 2 tbsp rum (I used cognac, that’s what I had)
  • shaved almonds or hazelnuts, or whole or coarsely ground for sprinkling
  • the grated zest of one lemon.
  • vanilla to taste
If you are not Bulgarian, you won't appreciate this, but I bought fresh milk in a retro soft plastic package. This was the only package milk was sold in for many decades before tetrapacks entered Bulgaria in the 1990s. In the times when nylon had not still completely overtaken us, these plastic cases used to be washed and reused :).
If you are not Bulgarian, you won’t appreciate this, but I bought fresh milk in a retro soft plastic package. This was the only package milk was sold in for many decades before tetrapacks entered Bulgaria in the 1990s. In the times when nylon had still not completely overtaken us, these plastic bags used to be washed and reused :).

Preparatory Work:

  • Mix sultanas and raisins with alcohol and leave so that the fruit becomes plump and moist.
  • Measure your butter and leave it on the counter until it is very and I mean, really very soft.
  • Pre-sieve the entire 1 kg of flour into a bowl.
  • Take your largest metal or enamelware baking dish (probably the deep one that came with your oven when you bought it) and layer with baking paper.

How to Prepare:

  • Measure the exact amount of yeast with kitchen scales, place in a medium bowl with about 3/4 cup of the 1 cup of fresh milk required in the recipe. Preheat the milk on the stove until slightly above body temperature.
Milk and Yeast.
Milk and Yeast.
  • Mix milk and yeast until smooth and add flour, as much as the mixture would take. You basically have two options, you can either make the mixture a thick paste but not dough, or you can make it into a ball of actual dough. The end result won’t suffer either way. When you are done, you cover the bowl and leave it for about an hour to leaven. 
Milk, yeast and flour made into a ball of dough.
Milk, yeast and flour made into a ball of dough.
The leavened yeast dough, pre-sieved flour, butter, sugar and raisins, all ready.
The leavened yeast dough, pre-sieved flour, butter, sugar and raisins, all ready.
  • In the meantime, break the eggs in a large bowl and whip until frothy with an egg whipper. Don’t be tempted to use a mixer, it breaks something in the yolk structure of the eggs, so a hand whipper is better. Devote 15 minutes of your life to whipping, it is not such a big deal. Our grandmas used to do it all the time. So start whipping the eggs and adding the sugar and the milk slowly. You are done when the sugar has been completely dissolved and the mixture has become frothy at the top but thick and heavy and quite dark yellow underneath. Add the salt, vanilla and lemon zest. 
Frothy eggs.
Frothy eggs.
I hope you see the dark yellow underneath the pale froth. These are the eggs, sugar, milk and vanilla.
I hope you see the dark yellow underneath the pale froth. These are the eggs, sugar, milk and vanilla.
  • Start making the dough, by adding the leavened dough with the yeast to the egg mixture. Add more flour from the pre-sieved bowl and also take pieces from the butter. Mix everything and when it starts holding together, take it out of the bowl and knead on the counter. The process is very messy and you’ll need to summon all your faith in the happy ending of this endavour to be able to complete it.
The roasted hazelnuts smelled divine, together with the butter, milk, vanilla and lemon zest aromas, mingling in my kitchen.
The roasted hazelnuts smelled divine, together with the butter, milk, vanilla and lemon zest aromas, mingling in my kitchen.
  • You’ll know your dough is ready when it becomes glossy and slight bubbles start to appear below the surface. Add the raisins with the liquid, if it has not been already completely absorbed. Knead energetically and quickly. 
  • Place the dough in an oiled and floured baking dish, cover with kitchen roll paper and put it in the oven (switched off) to leaven, for about an hour. 
  • Then knead with oiled hands for a while again, and break your dough in two pieces (with your hands, not with a knife). Then break each half into three pieces. Shape as balls.
Bear with me, we are almost done :).
Bear with me, we are almost done :).
  • Then make each ball into a rope, put the three ropes in the dish where you’ll bake the kozunak, and make them into a braid. Repeat for the other three balls. Thus, you’ll end up with two kozunak braids.
Not bad for a first-timer, right?
Not bad for a first-timer, right?
  • Put in the switched off oven for about 30-40 minutes to leaven again.
  • Preheat oven to 170-80 degrees C. 
  • Smear the top of the braids with egg, sprinkle with sugar and with nuts. If raw, you’ll need to pre-bake the nuts.
Finally ready for the oven!
Finally ready for the oven!
  • Bake until it starts smelling like ready. You’ll know when your head starts spinning from the smell. Especially if you’ve been fasting during the Great Lent preceding the Easter. 🙂 
Enough to feed a platoon of starved soldiers.
Enough to feed a platoon of starved soldiers. I may have over-baked it a bit though.
I guess tasting got out of control.
I guess tasting got out of control.

Are you by now wondering what are you going to do with so much kozunak? You may eat it by dipping it in hot milk when it hardens, which will be pretty soon given that it does not contain any preservatives.

Or you may break a kozunak slice into pieces in a bowl and pour hot milk over it. Put a plate on top of the bowl for a couple of minutes. In this way you’ll obtain a much-revered Bulgarian dish, known as popara (попара, accent on the first A).

Popara can also be made with stale bread, cheese, butter, sugar and hot water. It is baby food and also food for the old and the toothless. But honestly, I don’t know a person, who doesn’t like popara. They may be just shy to admit it.

Alternatively, you can always give pieces of the kozunak to friends and neighbours, while it is still fresh and soft, of course. 

Making kozunak wasn’t at all that hard and scary as I had imagined. In any case, so much better than buying ready, pumped full of margarine…And I feel like a real woman now, I know I can bake kozunak from scratch and not wait for my mom to feed me. Such a relief :). 

Enjoy!