Cozonac Season is On!
My Grandmother always used to say one should never start making cozonac until they are at peace with themselves. I for one, believe that coming to peace with oneself is a life long labour, so I don’t know about that. But I do agree some peace is needed, for mixing, for kneading and then kneading some more, for allowing the whole thing to leaven with a fair amount of hope, all the while wondering if they’re going to turn out remotely ok.
To say that I was at peace when I started making cozonac this year would be a lie. I was feeling sick with the flu, I had burned my hand the previous day pretty bad so every orange zesting or bowl wash-up was a dread. But somehow, somewhere deep down there was some amount of peace and it was stemming from freedom; the freedom of saying “whatever will be will be”. If you step out of the “musts” and “shoulds”, then you too will be free. I promise!
To go back to the issue at matter, namely cozonac, a leavened sweet bread that can have different types of fillings. I prefer walnut filling, but some like dried fruit, cocoa or Turkish delight. If you don’t already know this, it is a well known tradition in my country that all home cooks absolutely have to make this sweet bread on Christmas and they need to rise sky-high and if they don’t, then you are a failure. And isn’t that the farthest thing from Christmas spirit or any spirit for that matter, that you’ve ever heard?
Let me tell you, the process of making this traditional sweet bread started out great. I did everything I was supposed to, I even was patient. I let the dough rise and yes, it did rise, a lot. I managed to roll the loaves to perfection, with much appreciated help from my mom. And then, alas, I put them in the oven without noticing I had set the oven to grill. What happened was that the cozonac loaves scorched on the top and did not cook on the inside. Yes, I didn’t feel great about it, but fortunately, I figured this out fairly quick and managed to set the oven on regular baking and let the loaves bake for as long as they needed; all the while in my mind, I really thought they would turn out miserably. But then I took them out of the oven, allowed them to cool completely, then ran a knife through and had a nice slice. And the taste was great, the texture too. It was soft, fluffy, dense but not too dense, flavourful and just the right amount of sweet.
Should you make home-made cozonac? Yes, definitely, if it’s something that makes you happy and brings you joy. If it doesn’t make you happy and all you can think of is how terrible a home cook everyone will think you are because they might not turn out perfect, then forget it; just buy a good one and enjoy it. When your freedom is at stake, there’s nothing worth sacrificing it for. And I’m a natural born baker, I should know: nothing tastes as good as freedom feels.
1 kg/4 cups sifted all-purpose flour & 1 Tblsp flour, divided
300g/1½ cups sugar & 150g/¾ cup sugar & 1 Tblsp sugar, divided
400ml/1.5 cups full fat milk & 3 Tblsp milk, divided
14g/1 Tblsp dry yeast
150 gr/½ cup greek yoghurt
8 egg yolks
A pinch of salt
4 egg whites
100g/3.5 oz. butter, melted
100ml/½ cup vegetable oil
Zest from one orange
Zest from one lemon
1 vanilla pod, seeds scraped
300g/3.5 cups walnuts, whizzed in the food processor to a paste
Egg wash made from one egg yolk beaten with 1 Tblsp full-fat milk
In a saucepan, heat the milk along with the sugar, until the latter is dissolved. Remove from the hob. In a bowl, place the yeast, 1 Tblsp flour, 1 Tblsp sugar and add 45ml/3 Tblsp warm milk, mix everything well and leave to rise for 20 minutes.
With a whisk, lightly beat the egg yolks with a pinch of salt.
In the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the hook attachment, place the flour, the yeast mixture, the egg yolks, vanilla seeds and oil and mix everything on low speed. Add the melted butter and milk and mix at low-medium speed for 10 minutes. Add ¾ of the citrus zest and mix for another 15 minutes, until the dough starts to pull away from the sides of the bowl. Place the dough in a large bowl, cover with a kitchen towel and leave to rise for about an hour, until it has doubled its volume.
In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form, then add the walnut, the 150g/¾ cup sugar and the rest of the citrus zest.
Preheat the oven to 170C/350F. Grease two loaf pans and line with parchment paper. Divide the dough in 4 equal parts. Roll each quarter of the dough on a surface slightly covered in oil, until you obtain a rectangle; place ¼ of the walnut mixture on top of each of the 4 rectangles. Roll into a log, then take two of the logs and start twisting them. Place the two twisted rolls in the prepared loaf pans. Brush the tops with egg-wash, then leave to rise for 30 minutes in their pans, at room temperature. Sprinkle with some granulated sugar, then pop in the oven for about 40 minutes. You can test if they’re done by sticking a skewer in them; if it comes out clean, they’re done.