Archive for the ‘Desserts’ Category

Two Easters and Bulgarian brioche

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

Easter is quite an event in my family and when it happens in April it becomes really complicated. As an Orthodox Christian, I usually celebrate Easter a week later than most. My “name day” falls on Palm Sunday and when you add my daughter’s name day, my birthday and my wedding anniversary, it gets really messy. All those holidays require a lot of planning, cooking and my favorite – baking. I usually go through several pounds of flour, huge amounts of butter and eggs – and I love it.

This year we had two full-blown Easters, including two rounds of egg coloring, a traditional Polish Easter breakfast, an American egg hunt and – a week later, as the Bulgarian tradition requires – roast leg of lamb, stuffed with rice and fresh herbs. I was in charge of the kozunak – the Bulgarian cousin of Jewish challah bread and French brioche. Though in Bulgaria you can buy it all year round, the Easter one is special and no celebration is complete without this sweet bread, heavy on the eggs and butter, and stuffed with dried fruits and nuts. The butter-vanilla-lemon zest aroma of the kozunak is one that defines this holiday for me, as are the blanched almonds that decorate its top and the eggs done up in psychedelic colors by my kids.

The recipe I have used for more than ten years now is from a cookbook first published in the thirties, which belonged to my grandmother. At first I was quite afraid, as the description and ingredients were very vague, but I was stubborn and wanted to feel that Easter aroma even if there were no almond trees blooming outside our Warsaw apartment. The first year the breads were flat and a little dry, but we ate them anyway. Besides, nobody knew the real thing except me and that was an advantage in my favor.

I was expecting to engage in serious combat with the dough, as I’d heard legends about how hard it is to knead and how long it has to be worked on. To my surprise it was actually easy, and as good a stress reliever as any bread dough. The recipe is for one kilo of flour and this may put some people off, but it’s worth making the whole amount. You can use different stuffings, make one plain and toast it for breakfast like brioche or freeze the extra dough for croissant-shaped rolls for weekend brunches to come.

Ingredients for the basic bread:

  • 10 cups (1.3 kg) all-purpose unbleached flour + extra for adding when kneading the dough
  • 30-40g (1-1.5 oz fresh yeast or 2 packages of instant yeast
  • 6 large eggs
  • 2 sticks butter (200gr) butter melted + extra for rolling surface
  • 1 ¼ cups milk (250ml), warm
  • 1 1/3 cup sugar (dark brown and white mixed)
  • zest of 1 lemon
  • 2 tbsp pure vanilla extract
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 tbsp rum or brandy
  • 1 egg for egg wash + 1 tbsp of milk
  • 1/2 cup blanched almonds
  • sugar for sprinkling


Sift the flour in a big mixing bowl and make a well in the middle.

Crumble the fresh yeast, or pour in the dry, into a small bowl with 1/2 cup warm milk, add 1 tbsp sugar and enough flour to make a thin batter. Cover and leave in a warm place until it starts bubbling – about 10-15 minutes depending of the air conditions. Keep an eye on it, as it tends to explode!

Whisk the eggs with the sugar and add the rest of the warm milk, zest, vanilla and rum.

When the yeast is ready, add it to the flour, than the egg mixture and 1/2 tsp salt. Start making the dough adding the melted butter little by little or dipping your hands in it (that’s how I do it) and working the dough until all the butter is incorporated. When kneading the dough instead of pushing, pull and stretch it on the side of the bowl and then roll it into a ball and stretch again until it’s smooth, doesn’t stick to the walls of the bowl and little bubbles appear on the surface. Add some extra flour while kneading if the dough is too sticky. Form a ball, place it in a buttered bowl, cover with a clean tea towel and put in a warm, draft free place to rise – until double its size (around 1 hour). Or place it on a floured wooden board and cover with a big glass bowl like for the pizza dough.

Preheat the oven to 375°F (200°C).

The amount is enough for several loaves depending on the sheets and pans you are going to use. Pull three equal dough balls, roll them into logs on a buttered surface and make a braid, place on a baking sheet or cake pan lined with parchment. Leave it to rise again covered with a clean moistened towel. When it doubles in size, brush with the egg wash, push some almonds into the top and sprinkle with sugar. Bake until golden brown and a tester comes out clean – 20-30 minutes. Take out before it has cooled completely.

Kozunak can be stored in an airtight container, but is best eaten fast.

You can also make a roll with the dough. Roll 1/3 of the dough into a square around 1cm (half inch) thick. Mix one jar of jam of your liking (mine is fig) with handful of chopped walnuts and the same amount of raisins, dried cranberries or cherries, and spread over the dough, leaving 1cm free on the edges. Roll it and place into a cake form to rise. Brush with the egg wash, place almonds and sprinkle with sugar, then bake as before.

You can make little croissants, either plane or with sweet stuffing like for the roll. After shaping them, place on a baking sheet, leave to rise and do as before (skip the almonds). Or you can stuff them with a mix of ½ pound crumbled feta and one big egg for about ¼ of the dough. Those are the ones my kids fight for – often with me.

The ultimate weekend breakfast – homemade pakcakes

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2009

I love pancakes, crepes, thick buttery Bulgarian katmi, but making them always turns into a nervous nightmare. I can’t even be around in the kitchen when somebody else is flipping the batter. I have fought this curious malady, but so far with no success, and so I was happy to surrender to my husband’s willingness to take over this part of our diet. Over the years we spent in Poland with no commercial pancake mixes he developed a recipe that makes great fluffy cakes, which we devour at least twice a month. Some of our American friends were shocked to find out that pancakes could be made without any help from Aunt Jemima. Even now in the States he uses this simple recipe much to my delight.

The greatness of pancakes is that they are the base for so many yummy condiments. I usually eat them savory with feta or goat cheese, sun dried tomatoes, baby green salad, but the rest of my family is more orthodox and goes for good quality jam or maple syrup. Even if you are a pancake mix devotee, try this courtesy of my other half and you’ll see how easy it’s to make them by yourself. Our kids love to help during the process, something we are happy to oblige.

Here’s his recipe:

Buttermilk pancakes (serves four)


  • 3 cups unbleached flour
  • 1 ½ tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 3 tbsp sugar
  • 3 cups buttermilk
  • 3 eggs

Sift together the flour and baking powder. Add the salt and sugar, then the eggs and buttermilk. Mix lightly until large lumps disappear, but don’t overmix if you’re not a fan of flat, rubbery cakes. The batter should be of a thick but flowing consistency – add a bit of water if it becomes too thick. Fry over a medium flame until golden on both sides. Serve with maple syrup, or whatever you have at hand – I’ve seen good use made of all kinds of jams and preserves, but also of goat cheese and pickled onions, not to mention a variety of cured meats.

Fat Thursday

Friday, February 20th, 2009

For the last few days I’ve been sleep-deprived, surrounded by flu sufferers and deep into macroeconomic issues. Food at home was last Saturday’s chicken, hot dogs, toasted bagels with what ever you could find in the fridge, and vanilla meringues from Trader Joe’s for the kids when I wasn’t watching. The only culinary highlight of the week were pączki – Polish-style donuts for Fat Thursday, which was yesterday. I have no idea why Poles celebrate Fat Thursday and not Tuesday like much of the rest of the world, but there’s no use questioning it. Anyway, the tradition is to eat as many as you can handle before Lent. We observe this tradition diligently, though none of us has any idea when Lent actually starts.

I must be in a really bad shape, as I actually ate two and didn’t squint – I don’t have much of a sweet tooth and donuts are not my type of sugar fix in any case. But these were good, stuffed with plum or rose jam and not too greasy – fresh and yummy. Never in my worst nightmares would I dream of making them myself – too complicated for something that the next door Polish bakery makes much better. For those in Chicago and willing to forget their sugar and fat intake limits for a while, the address is Delightful Pastries, 5927 W. Lawrence – near Austin Ave.

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