This sweet, enriched yeast bread owes much of its deliciousness to its swirls of bittersweet walnut and rum filling, one of the most popular across Romania. The dough is rich with butter, milk, and eggs, and perfumed with lemon zest and vanilla. It resembles golden silk as it’s mixed, and fills every house and bakery with a glorious aroma as it comes out of the oven.
The fact that cozonac is only made twice a year, for Christmas and Easter, turns it into something almost mystical. The entire process of making the celebratory bread is surrounded by traditions and superstitions.
Makes 2 loaves
For the Maia (Starter)
- Scant 1/4 cup (1 ounce) all-purpose flour
- 1/4 cup milk
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 packet (1/4 ounce, or 2 1/4 teaspoons) instant yeast
For the Dough
- 2 packets (1/2 ounce, or 4 1/2 teaspoons) instant yeast
- 1/2 cup milk, lukewarm
- 6 egg yolks (save 2 of the whites for the filling)
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup (3 1/2 ounces) sugar
- 2 tablespoons rum
- 3 3/4 cups plus 1 tablespoon (17 ounces) all-purpose flour
- Zest of 1 orange
- Zest of 1 lemon
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
- 7 tablespoons butter, melted
- 1 tablespoon vegetable or sunflower oil
For the Filling
- 2 egg whites
- 7 ounces walnuts, finely ground
- 2 teaspoons powdered instant coffee
- 3 tablespoons (3/4 ounce) cocoa powder
- 2 tablespoons rum
- 1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons (5 ounces) sugar
For the Glaze
- 1 egg yolk
- 1 tablespoon milk
Make the Maia: Combine all of the ingredients in a large bowl. Cover and set aside in a warm place for 25 minutes, or until doubled in size.
Make the Dough: In a small bowl, dissolve the yeast in the milk. In a separate bowl, combine the egg yolks with the salt, then add the sugar and rum.
Pour the egg mixture over the maia, followed by the milk and yeast mixture. Then gradually add the flour, citrus zest, and vanilla. Transfer to the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a dough hook. Knead for about 10 minutes, or until the dough is soft and pulls away from the sides of the bowl.
Add the butter, a little at a time, kneading after each addition until well incorporated. (I prefer to do this by hand as it is gentler on the dough, and you can feel the mixture becoming silky and elastic—an indication that the butter has been well incorporated.)
Cover and leave in a warm place (over 70 degrees F) to rise for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, until the dough has doubled in volume. If the dough is too soft to handle after rising, knock the air out of it and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Make the Filling: Whisk the egg whites to very soft peaks. Fold in all of the remaining ingredients and set aside.
Shape the Loaves: Grease and flour two 9- x 5-inch loaf pans.
Grease a flat working surface with the vegetable or sunflower oil, turn out the dough, and divide it into four pieces.
Using your fingertips, stretch one of the pieces of dough into a 12- x 16-inch rectangle, with the longer side closer to you. Spread a quarter of the filling evenly onto the dough rectangle, and roll it up, away from you, into a log. Repeat this process with a second piece of dough.
Lay one log over the other to form an “X” shape. Twist the two logs of dough together, starting with one side of the “X” and then repeating with the other side. Lift the twisted dough and place it into one of the prepared loaf pans.
Repeat the whole process with the remaining two pieces of dough and filling.
Cover the pans with a damp tea towel and leave the loaves to proof in a warm place for at least 1 hour, until the dough rises to the top of the pans.
Bake the Loaves: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
Whisk together the egg yolk and milk for the egg wash, then gently brush onto the tops of the loaves.
Bake for 25 minutes. Lower the oven temperature to 350 degrees F and bake for another 20 minutes, covering with foil if the tops brown too quickly.
Remove the loaves from the pans and place them upside-down or on their sides on a wire rack (so the tops don’t weigh down the rest of the bread and make it stodgy). Cover with a kitchen towel and let cool completely. Slice and serve with a glass of hot milk.