Cozonac is a delicious combination of soft, gently sweet bread and a lightly sweet nut swirl. You'll find it served as a traditional festive treat, but it is certainly tasty, and pretty, enough that you'll want to enjoy it much more often.
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Just as a number of countries have particular dishes that you typically serve for a festive meal, many also have a special bread. One of the things I love about this tradition is that it's often something you will eat over a few days, bake for others and, if you are organized, maybe bake again before it's considered out of season.
I remember trying to squeeze out a good few rounds of hot cross buns over the Easter period growing up, for example. Though I have to admit that things like Valentine's chocolates and Christmas baked goods being in stores for months is too much for me.
I'll still happily take the excuse to enjoy a few Easter bakes this time of year, whether that's the hot cross buns I grew up with or others we have grown to love like Greek tsoureki. This delicious loaf is one we were all happy to make a reason to bake, too.
Cozonac is a traditional bread found in Romania, Bulgaria (where it is called kozunak), Moldova and Serbia. Its origins, however, are likely not from that region.
Apparently, there's evidence of it being included in cookbooks in the UK in the 1700s, but this doesn't seem to have any connection to the origin.
Instead, it's believed to originate in ancient Egypt where it was sweetened with honey and filled with seeds. The Ancient Greeks took an interest in leavened doughs and introduced them to the Romans. Over time, the Southeast European versions of the bread evolved and become a regional tradition.
While most versions of this bread start with the same basic sweetened, butter and egg-enriched yeasted dough, the flavorings can vary quite a lot. Most include some lemon zest in the dough but not all. Other flavorings include vanilla, orange zest and rum or sweet wine.
Some add dried fruit, particularly raisins, in with either the dough or as part of a swirled filling. Others used nuts or chocolate, typically made into a paste to add a swirl, as you see here.
The different additions generally vary by region, with the walnut swirl you see here being more popular in the Romanian versions, but you may well find a mix of styles in any one place.
While in Bulgaria this is more typically just made for Easter, in Romania you'll find it enjoyed a bit more regularly. It's also popular for Christmas and other holidays, and some bakeries will have it year round.
I, for one, wouldn't turn down this delicious bread any time of year. This soft loaf is a bit like a brioche or babka, but with a distinctly different nut filling. Yes as with any bread it takes a little time but you are certainly rewarded.
Tips for forming the bread
You'll find a couple different shapes for this bread - some simple roll it, others twist it. Some people use a loaf tin while others leave it free-form. You may even change depending on how the mood takes you.
For me, since I've gone with the swirl of nut filling, I find that forming a twist and using a loaf tin to bake it in gives the best balance of pretty pattern and a shape that holds together.
Some tips for best results:
- Don't spread the filling right to the edge - the filling stops the dough sticking to itself, but also gives it a way to leak out. So you want a slight rim for the dough to be able to stick to itself and stop the filling from escaping.
- Don't roll the dough too tight - you roll the dough with the filling, similar to how you would a cinnamon roll, but make sure you leave some space for the dough to expand. This helps avoid it becoming doughy in the middle of the roll and gives a nice more even pattern.
- Make sure the two rolls are roughly the same length - this helps them twist together evenly. And again, don't twist them too tightly.
- Have patience! This is a yeasted dough, and needs time to rise before baking to have the best results. It does rise more on baking, but don't rush the second rise before you bake - you should see the twists puff up a bit first (as in picture below).
- Brush with egg wash before baking - this helps to give a rich, golden color on top. You typically then also add some coarse sugar or poppy seeds for decoration on top. It adds a lovely texture, too.
Romanian Easter food
The vast majority of Christians in Romania are Orthodox and as a result, they celebrate Easter following the Orthodox (Julian) calendar which is typically around two weeks later than the Gregorian calendar date.
In terms of food, you will pretty much always find lamb in some form on the menu. It's not popular at other times of year, but is closely associated with Easter for many. Chops or a stew are a common main, and drob, a kind of meatloaf or haggis-like dish made from lamb organs is also a popular appetizer.
Along with cozonac, paska, a cheese-filled bread (almost like cheesecake) is a popular dessert.
Cozonac is a delicious sweet bread that is also steeped in history and traditions. This version with a gently lemon-scented dough and nutty filling is both pretty and flavorful, and perfect for so many occasions.
It's great with morning coffee, or simply as a snack. And the pretty pattern makes it ideal to serve guests, too. So many reasons to give it a try.
Try these other sweet breads/pastries:
- Pan de mallorca (Puerto Rican sweet rolls)
- Swedish cardamom buns
- Panettone (often a Christmas bread, but also enjoyed other times)
- Plus get more bread recipes in the archives.
- ½ cup milk 120ml
- ⅓ cup sugar 67g
- 1 tablespoon lemon zest
- ⅓ cup unsalted butter 75g
- 2 ½ cups all purpose flour 350g plain flour
- ½ tablespoon dried instant yeast
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 2 egg yolks
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
For the filling
- ¾ cup walnut pieces 3oz/85g
- 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1 ½ tablespoon sugar
- 2 egg whites
- 1 egg will not use all
- 1 teaspoon raw sugar approx
- Warm the milk, sugar and lemon zest in a small pan over a medium heat until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from the heat and add the butter, in small pieces. Stir to melt the butter in the heat of the liquid. Allow to cool until lukewarm.
- Meanwhile, add the yeast and salt to the flour and mix through. Separate the eggs and chill the whites until needed later.
- Once the milk mixture has cooled, add the flour mixture, egg yolks and vanilla. Mix to bring the dough together then knead the dough a few minutes - you can either mix then knead a couple minutes with a stand mixture or mix by hand and knead on a lightly floured surface around five minutes. Bring the dough together in a ball.
- Lightly oil a bowl and add the dough then cover. Allow to rise at a warm room temperature for around an hour, until doubled in size.
- Towards the end of the rising time, blend the walnuts, sugar and cocoa powder together in a food processor to form a coarse powder. Separately, beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks then fold in the nut mixture. Chill until needed.
- Once the dough has risen, remove from bowl and divide into two pieces. Take one of the pieces of dough, gently knock it back to reduce in size a little then roll it into a square/rectangle roughly 11 inches (28cm) square, or slightly longer in one direction.
- Take half of the nut filling mixture and spread it over the flattened dough, leaving around ½ in (1cm) without the filling around the edges. Roll up into a log (as you would a cinnamon roll - you can roll either long or short edge, as you prefer, if you made it more rectangle-shaped). Don't make the roll too tight as you want to allow a bit of space for it to expand. Repeat with the other piece of dough and filling.
- Grease a loaf tin with butter then take the two rolls of dough and twist them together all the way down. Carefully place the twist in the loaf tin, tucking the ends in slightly if needed. Cover with a damp cloth and leave to rise, roughly an hour again, until it has almost doubled (it may not fill out the tin but that is fine, it will expand more on baking).
- When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350F/180C. Brush the top of the loaf with lightly beaten egg then sprinkle over some raw sugar. Bake the loaf in the middle-bottom of the preheated oven for approximately 35-45 minutes until it is golden brown on top and cooked through. Allow to cool slightly before removing from the pan to cool completely.
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I first shared this cozonac recipe on Curious Cuisiniere where I am a contributor.