Today is January 7th, it’s Božic, it’s Christmas for the Serbian and several other Orthodox folks around the globe who never abandoned Julian calendar and are a little bit behind other Christians in celebrating the birth of Jesus. Christmas is my favorite Serbian holiday, mainly because of its deeply pagan nature rooted in the ancient rituals of the polytheistic Slavic tribes. Upon the conversion to Christianity, the tribes held strongly onto their old deities and many of the pagan customs found their way into Christian practices. As a result, Serbian Christmas is an endless fairytale of magic folk rituals and offerings, which culminate in the Christmas meal, the richest, the most decadent, the most significant and the most celebratory meal the family will have in the year. (And now the true nature of my love for Christmas becomes embarrassingly obvious.)
The centerpiece of the Christmas table is cesnica [chesnitsa] the ceremonial bread with a silver or gold coin hidden inside. At the beginning of the dinner, the head of the household will bless the bread, rotate it three times counterclockwise, break it by hand and give one piece to each family member. Whoever finds the coin will be exceptionally lucky in the coming year.
Cesnica is not a simple business. Its preparation varies from region to region, from one family to another. Sometimes cesnica is sweet, sometimes it is savory. Sometimes it is decorated with religious inscriptions, sometimes it wears a beautiful braid around its belly (just like cesnica featured in New York Times). It can be flat, it can be tall. The only thing all recipes agree on is that cesnica must be round. In my family, for generations, cesnica was prepared with milk and butter and called for elaborate folding of the dough (very much like in making of the puff pastry), which results in almost croissant like texture and flavors. When I arrived to the US, I did not make cesnica for two years. I was lonely. My family was away. The pagan gods did not have the same appeal anymore. And when I decided to make it again, it all fell apart. I attributed the miserable failure of my first US cesnica to the lack of practice. The following year it happened again. And then again. To be completely honest, my US cesnica was not bad. By all accounts it was better than an average cesnica out there. But it was not the cesnica I remembered. It was not the one I ate as a kid, the one my grandmother secretly marked with a sprig of basil flower to make sure that I always get the coin, the practice my father brutally discontinued considering it un-educational. The cesnica I made was somebody else’s bread. And thus begun my quest to reclaim the bread of my childhood.
But that’s an entirely different story altogether…
* 1 1/4 cups milk
* 1 1/2 oz fresh yeast
* 16 oz pastry flour (I use Antimo Caputo The Chef’s Flour “00” or King Arthur)
* 1 1/2 tsp salt
* 1 tbsp sunflower oil
* 7-8 tbsp unsalted butter
* 1 tsp sugar
* one pure silver or gold coin, cleaned properly by scrubbing with non-toxic cleaner, then rinsed thoroughly (or you can fake it by wrapping a quarter into aluminum foil)
1. About two hours before baking remove the butter from the refrigerator and let it soften at room temperature.
2. Warm up the milk to about 75°F. Add the sugar and crumbled yeast. Stir to dissolve. Wait at least ten minutes, until it becomes foamy and doubles in volume.
3. In a large bowl, mix the flour, milk, salt and oil. Knead about 10 minutes by machine and then 10 minutes by hand, until smooth stiff dough forms and pulls away from the work surface and your fingers. (Alternatively, if you want to be a true cesnica warrior, skip the machine entirely and knead by hand. It’s also excellent workout for toning the arms.) Put the dough on a baking sheet or a plate, cover and let rise for about 45 minutes to an hour, until doubled in volume.
4. Sprinkle the work surface with flour. Roll the dough into a disk or square less than 1/4 inch thick (the disk should be really big, about 15 inches in diameter). Spread two tablespoons of the butter uniformly across the surface. Fold the disk in half away from yourself, then fold again in half towards yourself, fold again to the left, and then finally fold again in half to the right. (You will end up with a packet of dough.)
5. Let the dough rest covered for about 20 minutes at room temperature. Then roll the dough again, spread the butter on top of it, and repeat the folding process.
6. For the third time, let the dough rest covered for about 20 minutes. Roll it again, spread the butter on top of it, and repeat the folding process. During this final folding, place the coin inside the dough.
7. Let the dough rest covered for another 20 minutes. Grease a 3 quart round casserole (or similarly sized round baking pan, about 9-10 inches in diameter). Roll the dough, place it into the baking pan and let it rise for about 20 minutes.
8. Heat the oven to 400°F. Brush the top of the bread with the remaining tablespoon of butter and place in the oven. Bake the bread at 400°F for about 20 minutes. When the crust starts to turn golden, reduce temperature to 320°F and bake for another 30 minutes, or until an instant-read thermometer registers 190°F.
9. Let the bread cool in the pan for about 10 minutes and then remove from the pan. Serve slightly warm and you will be in heaven.
p.s. The bread is at its yummiest when it is slightly warm. It is a great companion to fresh feta cheese, ajvar and prebranac.