Last year I threw a magnificent good luck feast on January 1st. And I wore the reddest of the good luck red dresses to my party. And I baked a splendid coin bread for the Serbian Christmas. As it turns out, it was one of the worst years of my life. A really, really bad vintage. This year I woke up on January first with fever, and continued to be ill all the way until the Christmas day. (You might recall that I am of the Eastern Orthodox kind -- remember the folks who once upon a time decided that 0.002% correction in the length of the year is negligible, and that Julius Cesar did a mighty good job with the Julian calendar, hence they refused to make a switch to the Gregorian one? Well, I am one of these guys.) So, this year, like any proper, food loving Christian would do, despite being in the toilet, I decided to bake the Christmas bread with the lucky coin in it. That is, only to find out that I misplaced my lucky coin. My great grandfather’s silver coin, two Serbian dinars from 1912, it is the coin we have been hiding in our Christmas breads for generations. “What a heck, you can get it on eBay,” Dr. V emphatized, “for five bucks, I just checked it out. As a matter of fact, someone is bidding on it as we speak.” I was pleased to find out that: a) there are other unfortunate souls who, like me, happened to have misplaced their coin, and b) that, as always, Dr. V is missing the point.
I turned the house upside down, but the coin refused to be found. So I stuck another one of my old coins into the bread. I also cheated on the flour since there was no King Arthur left in the pantry and there was no life left in me to go out and buy it. Needless to say, the bread was a total failure. It was a mockery, an insult to all Christmas breads around the world. Let’s be honest, it was not bread at all. Didn't I swear not to cook when I am sick, but hey, if only I listened to my own wisdom a little bit more often, I would have done much better in life...
Upset with the loss of the family heirloom, I continued to search the house for days. I could not have a moment of rest until the coin was found. Needless to say, it did not help with the flu very much. And now that Christmas is over, and the weekend is over, and I am close to recovered, and I am about to return to work (yay!), I finally find the coin inside a red velvet pouch, inside a porcelain box, inside an antique Sri Lankan chest, which seems like an obvious place to keep a vintage coin. Doesn't it? And I decide to give my Christmas bread a second chance, except that my mom used to say that it is a sacrilege and blasphemy to bake Christmas bread outside Christmas, so I give up on the coin, replace milk with water, and butter with lard, and complete the job. And since I have about ten jars of duck fat sitting in my fridge (yay to that too!), following the recent duck project, I bake another one with duck fat.
"If Christmas bread ever wanted to be reincarnared," Dr. V tells me, "it should come back as this one!" I am not sure which bread he is referring to, and neither is he, and we keep on eating both, until we can reach the verdict. Or die in gluttony.
Judging by the amount of screw-ups, this will be an excellent year. Cheers to that!
* 1 1/2 - 2 cups water
* 1/4 oz active dry yeast
* 16 oz bread flour (I used King Arthur Organic Unbleached Bread Flour)
* 2 tsp salt
* 1 tbsp olive oil
* 8-10 tbsp leaf lard or duck fat
* 1 tsp sugar
About one hour before baking remove the lard from the refrigerator and let it soften at room temperature.
Measure out one and half cups of warm water. It should be about 110°F. (If you do not have thermometer, try a few drops of water on your wrist. If it feels warm and comfortable, yeast will be comfortable too.) Add the sugar and when the sugar is dissolved, add the yeast. Stir once or twice to dissolve. Let the yeast mixture sit for about ten minutes, until it becomes foamy and doubles in volume.
Sift the flour into a large bowl. Add the water with yeast, salt and oil and knead. (If the dough is too dry, add a bit more lukewarm water.) Knead about 2-3 minutes by machine and then another 10 minutes by hand, until the dough is very smooth and elastic, it should pull away from the work surface and your fingers. Put the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, away from draft or heat, cover the bowl with the plastic wrap and let the dough rise for about 45 minutes, until doubled in size.
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 about two to three tablespoons of lard 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.)
Put the dough back into the bowl, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the dough rest covered for about 20-30 minutes at room temperature. Then roll the dough again, spread the lard on top of it, and repeat the folding process. For the third time, let the dough rest covered for about 20-30 minutes. Roll it again, spread the lard on top of it, and repeat the folding process.
Shape the packet gently into a boule, place it in a 3-quart round casserole (or similarly sized round baking pan, about 9-10 inches in diameter), cover and let it rest for about 45 minutes.
Heat the oven to 425°F (or 400°F convection). Place the bread in the oven. Bake the bread for about 35-45 minutes, or until an instant-read thermometer registers 190°F-200°F.
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.