Cozonac is a seasonal Romanian sweet bread a bit like panettone or stollen. It’s eaten during the easter holidays too, but comes to the forefront during the Christmas and New Year period.
Cozonac can be made as a simple loaf, or jazzed up both in its shape and fillings, like the cozonac cu nuca with a walnut filling we’ve decided to try our hands at this week.
Origins of Cozonac
Romanian cuisine has had influences come in from all directions: from its Balkan and Austro-Hungarian neighbors to the food of the Ottoman Empire that was absorbed into the kitchens of Romanian homes. Romanian food runs the spectrum from soups and stews to fermented vegetables and grilled meats, as well as the nut and honey-sweetened desserts of the Turks.
Variations on the simple cozonac loaf include a circular, giant donut shape, or a braid. Possible fillings include fruit, raisins, poppy seeds, lokum (there’s the Turkish influence!) and walnuts.
The Spread of Festive Bread
Cozonac is closely related to some regional Italian breads like gubana from eastern Italy and Venetian puttiza as well as the Eastern European babka, giving rise to the theory that these sweet seasonal breads might have originated around Italy and worked their way through Europe.
Pretty much every European country, from Portugal and Spain to England, Scandinavia and Russia, has a version of sweet, dense Christmas bread, often fortified with dried fruits, citrus rind or nuts.
Regional varieties of Romanian cozonac also abound: in Moldova you might find cozonac baked round and tall that contain up to 20 eggs, butter, lemon, orange and raisins. In Ardeal, you’ll find a more German-style cozonac with poppy seeds, burnt sugar, lots of butter and roughly chopped nuts.
Gearing up for a feast
We’ve decided to make cozonac cu nuca, which is a variety of cozonac filled with a creamy walnut paste and then braided into a twist which gives the bread its pretty patterns when sliced. And it’s deliciously festive and indulgent. In Romania, people often offset the culinary extravagance of Christmas by fasting on the day of Christmas Eve, a religious tradition sure to build up an appetite for the feast to come.
This fast might be broken on the night of Christmas Eve when folks go caroling around their neighborhoods in villages and towns. As they go from house to house serenading their friends and family with Christmas songs, they’ll often be rewarded with a slice of cozonac.
The Romanian Christmas Table
The most traditional Romanian Christmas tradition is to roast an entire pig (which is traditionally slaughtered on December 20th, Ignat’s Day), then to process a number of offshoot dishes in the heartiest spirit of nose-to-tail eating. Dishes such as piftie, a gelatinous chaud-froid of pigs’ ears and feet, would be served alongside caltaboş, a white pudding made from pork offal and rice, sarmale – stuffed cabbage leaves – and a glut of other painstakingly prepared Christmas dishes.
Hours of grazing at the table usually conclude with a serving or two of cozonac. Whether it’s cozonac cu nuca or another variety with dried fruits or poppy seeds, it’s not unusual to prepare several kinds of cozonac for the Christmas dinner, on the off-chance that diners are still hungry.
About the Recipe
In order to achieve those perfect slices of marbled cozonac cu nuca, you’ll need to be on your best baking game. The rolling, folding, braiding process is a skill passed down through the generations of Romanian families that we’re going to do our very best to present and simplify below. Take your time and like with all baking, be sure to try and stick to the exact ingredients and measurements.
We decided to feature the walnut variety of cozonac, for the taste and texture of walnut and for the beautiful swirl in the slices, though as we already mentioned, there are numerous other fillings for a festive cozonac.
Prepare your ingredients
Start out by measuring everything you’re going to need. You can buy your walnuts already ground, or you can blitz them down to a fine grind in a food processor. If you’re feeling really full of traditional spirit, you could even pound your walnuts individually the traditional Eastern European way with a metal hammer, though we don’t think this method is a requisite.
Set aside 1/4 of a cup of milk and start to heat the rest in a saucepan over a medium heat, mixing in the sugar and the butter until it’s just melted. Now let the mixture cool until it’s slightly warm.
Add the beaten eggs and lemon zest. Letting the milk cool before adding the eggs means the eggs won’t cook as soon as they hit the liquid.
We recommend grating the lemon zest directly into the saucepan for maximum freshness.
Warm up the milk you put to one side and add it to the sugar and yeast. Mix together well and allow to stand for a few minutes.
Put the white flour into a bowl and sprinkle the salt on top. Then pour the yeast mixture over as well as the milk and eggs mixture and mix well into the flour.
It’s time to get kneading! Work the dough for about 10 minutes until it’s no longer sticking to your hands.
It should then easily roll into a big smooth ball like this one. Place the dough into an oiled bowl and cover with a clean towel or some foil. Leave it in a warm place to rise until it’s doubled in size. This should take about an hour.
In the meantime, you can begin to work on the filling for the cozonac. Start by heating the milk and sugar in a saucepan over a medium heat.
Now add the ground walnuts and stir for about 10 minutes. You’ll see the mixture really start to thicken by this point. Be sure to keep rubbing the bottom of the pan with your spoon to stop any milk from sticking down there and burning.
Take the mixture off the heat and add the cocoa and lemon zest. Set it aside to cool.
Now go back to your risen dough ball and cut it into two equal parts. Roll each part out onto a floured surface with a rolling pin, making a long oval shape.
Spread the walnut mixture over the surface of the dough. Spread evenly and keep away from the edges of the dough. Now roll the dough into a tube along its long edge. Repeat with the second piece of dough.
Take the two rolls and place them next to one another, pinching them together at one end. Now twist them one around the other and pinch them again at the end.
Place the twisted dough into a baking tin and leave for an hour to rise and expand within the tin.
Your twisted dough will now be looking a lot more like a loaf. Brush the top of it with a beaten egg and place inside a preheated oven (350F) to bake for 40-45 minutes, until the cake is nicely browned on top.
Your kitchen will no doubt be humming with the aroma of the cozonac when you take it out of the oven. Practice Herculean self-restraint in not touching the cake for another few hours until it’s cooled completely. Then enjoy it as a dessert or a treat to go with your coffee.
Our Take on the Recipe
After one failed attempt with a different recipe when our cozonac nu cuna more accurately resembled a deflated football, we were so happy that our recipe (based on this source recipe) this time around came out with glowing results. Our kitchen was buzzing with the aroma of the cozonac and we were thrilled at how good it looked when we finally sliced it. It was worth the wait!
This dense sweet bread is not everybody’s cup of tea, and although it went down well in our household, we somehow still think that the cozonac is an acquired taste.
If we make one change the next time we bake it, it’ll be to maybe add some more cardamom. Not that it wasn’t aromatic enough this time around, it’s just that our taste buds are telling us that cardamom might give it just the right flavor-balancing kick.
Here’s to kicking off the festive season, and a very Crăciun Fericit, as they say in Bucharest!
Cozonac Cu Nuca
Yield 1 loaf
- 1 + ¼ cups milk (set aside the ¼ cup for the yeast mixture)
- 4 ½ cups white flour
- 3 tbsp sugar
- 3 oz butter (at room temperature)
- Zest of one lemon
- 1 large egg
- ¼ tsp salt
- 3 tsp dry active yeast
- ¼ tbsp sugar
- 1 beaten egg for brushing the top of the loaves
- ½ cup milk
- 7 oz finely ground walnuts
- 3 oz sugar
- 1 tbsp cocoa
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
- Zest of one lemon
Step 1: Preparing the dough
- Mix butter, milk (save 1/4 cup of milk) and sugar in a saucepan and place it over medium heat until butter is melted. Let it cool until just warm.
- Now add the beaten eggs and lemon zest.
- Put the sugar and yeast in a bowl and mix it with the (warmed) reserved milk. Mix well and allow to stand for a few minutes.
- Put the white flour into a bowl and sprinkle the salt on top. Then pour the yeast mixture over as well as the milk and eggs mixture and mix well into the flour.
- Get kneading! You’ll need to knead the dough for about 10 minutes, until it’s no longer sticking to your hands.
- Place dough into an oiled bowl and cover with a clean towel or some foil.
- Leave it in a warm place to rise until it's doubled in size. This should take about an hour.
Step 2: Preparing the walnut filling
- Heat the milk and sugar over a medium heat.
- Add the ground walnuts and stir for 10 minutes, until mixture is thickened.
- Remove from the heat and add cocoa and lemon zest. Set aside and let it cool.
Step 3: Constructing the loaf
- Cut the ball of dough in half.
- Roll each ball out onto a floured flat surface to make a long oval-rectangular shape.
- Spread the walnut mix over the dough, evenly, keeping away from the edges.
- Roll the dough into a tube along its longer edge.
- Take both tubes, pinch them together at their ends and roll them into a double spiral, one around the other.
- Place in a pre-oiled and floured loaf tin.
- Leave the dough to rise in the tin for another hour. During this time it will expand to fit the tin and will look more like a loaf.
- Brush the top of the loaf with a beaten egg.
- Bake for in a preheated oven (350F) for 40-45 minutes or until golden on top.
- When the cozonac has cooled a little, remove it from the tin and allow to cool completely, preferably for several hours.