Česnica: Serbian Christmas bread

Česnica: Serbian Christmas bread

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Česnica is a Serbian Christmas sweet-bread baked on Christmas Eve, which falls on January 6th in the Old Calendar. It is tall, round, and resembles a crown, celebrating the birth of Christ the King. The bread also contains a coin which bestows a blessing upon the person who finds it. 

At the beginning of Christmas dinner, three candles are lit in honour of the Holy Trinity and the Lord’s Prayer is recited as they are lit. Everyone present greets each other with the Christmas greeting of ‘Christ is Born! Glorify Him!’ The Česnica is rotated three times counterclockwise, before being divided among the family members.

In some regions of rural Serbia, small figures carved from wood in the forms of farm animals, and even bees, are kneaded into the dough in the hopes of a blessed harvest. 

Before baking, various symbols – Cross, circles, flowers – are made from the dough and used to decorate the top of the loaf. The decorations also include the Christogram, “IC XC”.

ČesnicaČesnica

Ingredients

8 cups flour

4 tsp. yeast

2 cups milk

4 yolks (save egg whites)

4 tbs. sugar

1 stick butter, at room temperature

butter for pans

1/2 tsp. salt

Decorations

½  to 1 cup dough, saved

2 tbs. flour

A little milk

1 yolk

Egg whites (left over from bread), beaten slightly

Instructions 

1. Heat the milk until it is warm, but not hot. Dissolve yeast with a small amount of the milk, then gradually stir in the rest of the milk and sugar. Let it stand for 10 minutes.

2. Mix in remaining ingredients and knead well, making a stiff, stretchy dough that pulls clean from fingers. If too stiff, add more milk. Put in a greased bowl. Spray with vegetable oil. Cover. Set to rise in a warm place for at least one hour. Test by pressing the center lightly: if it springs back, it has more rising to do. 

3. Punch down and knead just enough to work out any big creases. Pinch about a quarter of dough to make the Cross and braid. Insert coin into remaining dough. Butter baking pot well, place dough in it, and leave it to rise again.

4. Using reserved dough, roll two long, thin cylinders. With a rolling pin, flatten them into ribbons. Make them two inches longer than the width of the bread. Brush with egg yolk and arrange in a cross over the top of the loaf, forming four quadrants. 

5. Roll a third cylinder, about two-thirds the length needed to encircle the bread. Flatten it, rolling out to the right length. Rope it around the bread. Brush with egg yolk to stick. 

6. In a small bowl, mix together flour, yolk, and enough milk to make a dense, pliable lump of sculpting dough. This dough won’t rise while baking, so it will retain any shapes molded or carved into it. Use this sculpting dough to make shapes that represent things important to members of the household, including the Christogram.

7. Dip sculpting-dough objects in egg white before placing on bread. The egg white will glue them in place and make them glossy when baked.

8. When done, brush top lightly with egg white. Bake at 400º for 10 minutes, then cover loosely with a sheet of foil. Turn down heat to 350º and bake 60 to 80 minutes more. Bread is done when a light thump produces a hollow sound. Let partly cool, then carefully turn it out into a dishcloth.

Recipe sourced and adapted from www.how-to-cook-with-vesna.com/serbian-kolac-recipe.html#recipe

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Chris Vlahonasios

Chris Vlahonasios is a law graduate from Victoria University and Orthodox media writer for TRANSFIGURE Media.