Easter is here! For Europeans, and particularly Eastern Europeans, that means a whole day’s project—baking traditional Easter Breads. The Easter Bread is a ritual bread used in the Greek Orthodox tradition and dates back to Byzantium. It’s sweet, eggy, raisiny and delicious, and it usually contains similar ingredients, regardless of location. Whether a Bulgarian kozunak, a Ukrainian babka or a Greek tsoureki, you get a yeasty treat that’s normally braided—the three strands of the braid symbolize the Holy Trinity (an interesting tidbit). The babka is an exception—it’s baked in tins, giving it its specific cylindrical shape, and it’s eaten on Easter Sunday to celebrate the rising of Christ.
All that said, it doesn’t matter if you’re a religious person, an agnostic or an atheist—this scrumptious bread is enough of a treat. You’ll have to invest half a day into making it, but it’s all worth it.
The Easter Bread we baked is a Bulgarian kozunak—it was our first time and we were shooting for perfection, as usual 😉 We got halfway there. I over-baked it, but I swear it wasn’t my fault this time, our oven has an attitude! According to Bulgarian sources, the bread is supposed to have a thread-like structure, much like the pastry equivalent of pulled pork, which I’m happy to report, we achieved!
The recipe was given us by Mira, a friend, and she’ll be making an appearance in the step-by-step guide below. Simeon was benched for this baking session 😉
A couple of other things I need to mention—use all-purpose or pastry flour, don’t follow our example. We didn’t have enough of those, so we went to a high gluten, high extraction bread flour. It was hell to knead and we won’t be making that mistake again!
Start by heating up the milk and sugar on the stove, until the sugar is dissolved. Put the mixture aside to cool off and in a bowl, mix together the eggs, salt and lemon zest.
Add half the oil to the egg mixture. It’s time to check the temperature of your milk—do this by putting your finger in it. You should be able to hold it in for at least 5 seconds, if it’s still too hot, wait some more. You need it warm, not hot. After the milk has reached the desirable temperature, put the yeast in and stir to dissolve it. Pour the milk into the egg mixture. Set aside.
You’ll need to sift the flour onto a large surface. It took Mira quite some time to sift all of it, since we only had the small sifter. After you’re done with your flour mountain, make a crater in the middle. This is where you’ll gradually pour the wet ingredients you previously prepared.
Knead until you have a smooth soft dough. Now comes the tricky, but immensely important part. You need to incorporate the rest of the oil into the dough, little by little. Make a depression in the middle of your dough and pour a little oil in it. Fold carefully. It will make a funny sound, but don’t worry, it’s normal. Try to knead the oil into the dough, fold multiple times, then pull and twist. We were told it’s the technique to use if you want your Easter Bread to have the coveted thread-like structure. Repeat this step until all the oil is incorporated.
After you’re done with the oil, use the same method for the raisins.
* Before you start making the bread, soak the raisins in a liquid—we used schnapps, but grappa, whiskey, rum, and vodka work just as well 😉 Drain thoroughly before adding to the dough. They’ll retain the fragrance and softness and will give your Easter Bread its particular aroma!
When you’re done kneading the raisins in, put the dough in a large bowl and cover with cling film. Find a warm place to put the bowl—but don’t use the oven. We covered ours with a fleece blanket and put it near the heating. It took two and a half hours for it to rise fully. I think it took so long because of the flour we used, so if you’re using the right flour it should probably take between one and a half and two hours. Actually, time is irrelevant here—your dough is ready when it has at least doubled in size. Take the dough out of the bowl and shape into an ellipse. It will deflate a little, but don’t fuss over it, we’ll let it rise again after we’re done braiding it. Now cut the ellipse into three equal parts and shape each one into a long, thin, baguette-like form. Braid your bread.
We used a cake pan, lined with baking paper, to bake it. Twist your braid into a circle in the cake pan—the two ends of the braid should meet! Cover again with cling film, place the pan somewhere warm and let it rest for 15-30 minutes, or until it’s risen slightly.
Glaze with egg white and sprinkle sugar on top. Preheat your oven to 180°C/350°F. Bake your Easter Bread for at least 50 minutes. If it starts getting too dark on top, cover with aluminium foil to prevent burning. Unfortunately I was to slow to do that and our kozunak got a little burnt. Nevermind, we ate it all anyway. It was yummy!
Next time though, we’ll definitely make improvements—more raisins, the right flour and maybe adding some nuts. Learn from our mistakes and your first attempt may just be perfect.
- 1kg all-purpose or pastry flour
- 250ml milk
- 4 eggs
- 100g raisins
- 16 tbsp sugar
- 200ml oil
- 40g fresh yeast
- Lemon zest from 2 lemons
- Soak the raisins in a liquid—alcohol works best (schnapps, grappa, rum, whiskey or vodka).
- Heat up the milk and sugar on the stove, until the sugar is dissolved. Set aside to cool.
- Beat the eggs, salt and lemon zest together. Add half of the oil.
- Put the yeast in the warm milk and stir until it dissolves.
- Add the milk-yeast mixture to the eggs.
- Sift the flour onto a large surface. Make a crater in the middle.
- Gradually add the wet mixture to the flour and knead until you have a soft, smooth dough.
- Make a depression in the dough and add some of the remaining oil. Fold and knead together. Twist, fold and knead.
- Repeat this process until all the oil is incorporated.
- Use the same method to add the drained raisins.
- Put in a large bowl, cover with cling film and put in a warm place. You can use a blanket to cover it.
- The dough is ready in about 2 hours. It should at least double its size.
- Turn over onto a floured surface and form an ellipse.
- Cut the ellipse into three equal parts.
- Shape each part into a long, thin form.
- Braid your bread. Put it in a cake pan, lined with baking paper. Connect the ends of the braid.
- Cover the cake pan with cling film and place in a warm place once again, for 15-30 min.
- Glaze the bread with egg white and sprinkle sugar on top.
- Preheat oven to 180°C/350°F.
- Bake for at least 50 min, or until a wooden skewer comes out clean (a toothpick won’t work, it’s too short).