If you are in Bulgaria in the week beginning 13 April, you can easily tell that Easter is approaching. Preparations for the festivities begin with a couple of rituals that everybody strictly observes.
There are two telltale signs: the sight of cartons full of eggs, lots of eggs, preferably large, home-produced or at least with a gleaming white shell, which will later be hard-boiled, coloured, handed out and hit against other eggs for good health; and the alluring aroma of freshly baked kozunak, or sweet bread, sprinkled with sugar and raisins, that wafts out from bakeries, restaurants, sweetshops, country houses and city flats.
The kozunak can be found in the shops at any time of the year, in the form of a roll or bun, but it is only around Easter that it becomes the focus of Bulgarian culinary tastes. The religious holiday in this country is not complete without coloured eggs and kozunak. Green salad and roast lamb are the only additions on the menu to these two essentials.
Bread plays a key role in a number of cultures. Prepared with specific ingredients in particular shapes, it may be the symbol of an important religious event or simply part of the traditional celebratory meal. For the Orthodox, the sweet festive bread is a sacramental food, a symbol of Christ's body in the same way as the red-coloured eggs are a symbol of his blood.
While hot cross buns are traditional for Easter in Britain, and marshmallow peeps – shaped like chicks or bunnies – in the United States, European countries make sweet bread with eggs. It is said that Easter bread was modelled after the Jewish challah, the brown-crusted, braided bread made from leavened dough and eggs, which is eaten on the Sabbath and other holidays.
Others claim that the history of kozunak began three centuries ago in France, where an imaginative baker prepared bread containing raisins for Easter. The novelty proved so successful that it soon became a tradition: sweet bread stuffed with raisins and currants is part of the Easter menu also in Norway, Germany, Portugal, Italy, Poland, the Czech Republic and all of Eastern Europe.
Tsouréki, the Greek version of sweet bread, is a compulsory element of their local Easter, although it can be prepared for other occasions too. It has the shape of a circle or two large braids, sprinkled with sesame seeds and decorated with red eggs and rose flowers. The Greeks exchange tsouréki as a token of friendship, and godparents traditionally give it to their godchildren on Easter Sunday.
The strangest-looking Easter bread of all is the kulich, which is traditionally made in Russia. Its unusual shape – tall and thin – is achieved by baking it in an empty cylindrical tin like the ones used to store coffee in. It is decorated with powdered sugar icing and a red rose on top of it and is commonly served with seerney paska, a sweet cheese cream spread. Kulich is traditionally eaten in Belarus and Ukraine too.
It is believed that the present-day Bulgarian kozunak was brought over from Austria in the 1920s. Before that time other breads were popular in Bulgaria, but kozunak soon took over and became a staple. Up until that time, housewives used to prepare the dough on Great Thursday and knead it on Saturday to make a special bread, which had different names in different parts of the country: Easter kravay, God's pita, koshara, harman, kvasnik, kolak, kolichi, yaychnik, pletenitsa or kukla.
It was usually decorated with an odd number of red or white eggs and wild geranium sprigs entwined with dough. They also prepared smaller Easter loaves with a red egg in the middle, which they gave to the first guest in the house, as well as to their godparents and neighbours, for good health and happiness in the year.
Some parts of the tradition have been preserved, however: the present-day sacramental bread has a round shape and is decorated with braids and red eggs.
Many people think that it is a laborious job to make kozunak, so they prefer to buy it. If you see a bakery with a long queue in front, or people writing their names on a list to keep their place in the line, it means that the kozunatsi there are worth the wait.
If they decide to prepare the cake at home, traditionally the Bulgarians can only do so on Saturday. The dough has to be kneaded early in the morning so that there is enough time for it to rise. The baked kozunak is taken to church in the evening and eaten only on Sunday morning, marking the end of Lent.
If you want to try your hand at making Bulgarian kozunak, try this classic recipe.
1½ cups milk;
1 cup sugar;
1 cup melted butter;
1 kg (2.2 lb) flour;
yeast (the size of a matchbox);
grated lemon rind or ½ bottle lemon essence;
raisins; you can also add nuts, Turkish delight, pieces of orange rind or chocolate;
1 egg yolk;
1 pack vanilla
Heat the milk and dissolve the yeast in it. Add 1 tsp sugar and 2 tbsp flour. Beat the eggs with the rest of the sugar. Add ¾ cups butter and the grated lemon rind. Sieve the flour, make a small hole in the centre and put the yeast and the beaten eggs in it. Make the mixture into dough (cover your hands with butter, so it does not stick to them), smear it with butter and leave it in a warm place for at least 3 hrs (6 hrs preferably) to rise. When the dough doubles in size, smear it again with melted butter mixed with vanilla and divide it into three or four balls. Add the raisins. Shape the dough into strands, weave them together in a plait and put it in a round tin with a hole in the centre. Leave the dough to rise again.
Finally, smear the kozunak with the egg yolk and perforate it with a fork. Put it in an oven at 150°C, or 300°F. Bake it slowly, for at least 40 minutes. Check if it is ready using a toothpick – it has to be dry when you prick it.
When the kozunak is ready, leave it for another 10 minutes in the oven before taking it out. Arrange the coloured eggs in the hole in its centre.
How can you tell a good kozunak? If it is fibrous when broken, you have done fine. If it crumbles, put in less sugar next time.