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Bun-ny Bread

March 28, 2012

Easter is right upon us – it’s just over a week!  In Hungary, people traditionally make a special bread called “husveti kalacs” or Easter sweet bread for the occasion.  As the country is mostly Catholic or historic Protestant (Lutheran or Calvinist), the end of the Holy Week has its own set of traditions.

For Good Friday, the meat-avoiding dish is beans, thickened with a buttery base rather than the common pork lard one.  For Saturday, our big meal is usually the supper, after the Resurrection celebrations at churches – in most Catholic parishes, this involves a major procession on the streets circling the church.  The big supper usually consists of cooked Easter ham, special homemade sausages, hard-boiled eggs, horseradish to go with the ham, and Easter bread, as well as fresh radishes, green onions and other vegetables in season.

The Easter bread often looks extremely elaborate with its braids, and tastes just amazing – and compared to how difficult it looks, it’s not even that hard.  While I wouldn’t recommend this recipe for absolute beginners, if you have handled dough before, it shouldn’t be too hard!

In about 3/4 cup of warm – just about body temperature – milk, dissolve 2 tablespoons of white sugar and one pouch (or 2-1/4 teaspoons) of instant dry yeast.  Make sure you use regular yeast, not rapid rise – the latter ones tend to not survive the long proofing times of the dough.  Let the milk-yeast mixture stand at a warm, draft-free place for about 10-15 minutes, or until bubbly.  In the meantime, also melt 7 tablespoons (1 stick, less 1 tablespoon) of good quality butter, and let it cool down to where you can put your finger into it without hurting yourself.

Yeast

Proofed yeast

In a large ceramic mixing bowl, combine 600 grams of unbleached all-purpose flour, 1/2 cup of sugar, a pinch of salt and 2 eggs.  When the yeast is ready, add it to the rest of the ingredients, and begin to knead.  As the dough starts to come together, add the butter, as well as enough warm milk to form a soft, kneadable dough.  The amount of milk can vary wildly, depending on a host of things: how moist your environment and your flour is, how watery was the butter, how big were the eggs and what was their yolk/white ratio, etc.  The final amount of the milk can even go up to a cup or even a little more!

Ingredients

Combining ingredients

Remove the dough from the bowl, and on a floured board, knead it smooth.  Put the dough ball back into the bowl, cover it up with a kitchen towel, and let it proof at a warm and draft-free environment.  If you want to speed the proofing process a bit, preheat your oven to the lowest possible temperature (around 100 degrees or even less), then turn it off before you place your bowl in the oven.  This way, the oven will retain a nice, gentle heat to help activate your yeast.

Before

Before...

After

... and after

Let the dough rise to double in bulk, then gently knead it again.  Most people call this second kneading “punching the dough down” – but don’t let the term fool you.  You should actually be very gentle and light-handed with the dough this time; all you need to do is to let some of the air (in fact, CO2 gas formed by the yeast cells) out from the gluten fibers.  Once done, it’s ready for a second round of proofing, again letting the dough double up.

Rise

Rise and shine

After the second rise, it’s time for the shaping.  Gently knead the dough over, then cut it into 3 equal parts.  Roll each part into a long rope, about 1 inch thick.  Press together one end of each rope, then braid them up – just like you would braid hair.  When you get to the end, join the ends together, and turn both joints under the bread on the ends for a smoother look.  Of course, for a more elaborate detail, you can use 4- or 5-strand braiding techniques as well (in that case, please e-mail me with the how-to – I would love to learn it!)

Braid

Braiding

Place the braided bread on a parchment paper lined cookie sheet – you can leave it straight, or circle it around a large ramekin for a wreath shape.  The ramekin is needed so that when the dough rises, it won’t “close” the center hole, making your wreath a disc.  Egg wash the top generously, then top it with plenty of dried oregano as well as Kosher salt or coarse sea salt.  The salty-spicy outside is a perfect balance of the sweet and fluffy inside!  Other common toppings are mixed cheeses (cheddar, parmesan, pecorino, or other full-flavored cheeses); cumin seeds and salt; or chopped walnuts and white sugar.  Cover the tray loosely with a towel, and let it rise another 15 minutes or so.

While the bread spends its final rise, preheat your oven to 300 degrees , and put a small dish of water to the bottom rack – if you’re making the wreath shape with the ramekin, you can also just fill that dish with water.  This will help the oven stay moist throughout the baking time, ensuring the bread will be deliciously moist and fluffy on the inside, while slightly crispy on the outside.

This Easter bread usually takes about 40-45 minutes to bake – check the center with a toothpick after about 30 minutes.  If the dough still sticks to the toothpick, or if you can’t twist it around easily with your fingers, it still needs to bake for a while.

This recipe is originally from my great-grandmother; and it has earned me a Blue Ribbon in the Yeast Breads – Herb category at the Fresno Fair in 2010!

Hungarian Easter Bread

Hungarian Easter Bread, with the Blue Ribbon

Enjoy your Easter!

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. kethrim permalink
    March 29, 2012 21:31

    Looks delicious- but the exact opposite of what I’d need for the holiday I’m preparing for, Passover! Although I don’t plan on having a Kosher meal, I think a yeast bread would be pushing it a bit. 😉

    • March 30, 2012 07:43

      Yeah, it does sound a little…. counter-intuitive. However, I do make this bread for every family gathering: Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, 4th of July, birthdays…
      Speaking of Passover – I’ll drop you a message.

  2. March 29, 2012 11:19

    It looks so beautiful, Nusy. My grandmother used to make an Easter bread using anise. My aunt makes it nowadays. Have you heard of that? I wasn’t crazy about the very strong taste, but it was a lovely, memorable, springtime tradition.

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