For Serbs and several other Orthodox folks Christmas arrives on January 7 – our great nations never abandoned Julian calendar and as a result we are a little bit behind other Christians in celebrating the birth of Jesus. Christmas is my favorite Serbian holiday, mainly because of its deeply pagan nature rooted in the ancient rituals of the polytheistic Slavic tribes. Upon the conversion to Christianity, the tribes held strongly onto their old deities and many of the pagan customs found their way into Christian practices. As a result, Serbian Christmas is an endless fairytale of magic folk rituals and offerings, which culminate in the Christmas meal, the richest, the most decadent, the most significant and the most celebratory meal the family will have in the year. The centerpiece of the Christmas table is chesnica [chesnitsa] the ceremonial bread with a silver or gold coin hidden inside. In my family, for generations, chesnica was prepared with milk and butter and called for elaborate folding of the dough (very much like in making of the puff pastry), which results in almost croissant like texture and flavors. When I was little, my grandmother would secretly mark the bread with a sprig of basil flower to make sure that I always get the coin -- a practice my father brutally discontinued considering it un-educational. And although my winning streak ended a long time ago, the magic of this bread continues to this day. —QueenSashy
1 1/4 cups
ounces fresh yeast
all purpose flour (I use King Arthur or Antimo Caputo 00 Chef's Flour)
1 1/2 teaspoons
One pure silver or gold coin, cleaned properly by scrubbing with non-toxic cleaner, then rinsed thoroughly (or you can fake it by wrapping a quarter into aluminum foil)
About two hours before baking remove the butter from the refrigerator and let it soften at room temperature.
Warm up the milk to about 95°F-100°F. Add the sugar and crumbled yeast. Stir to dissolve. Wait at least ten minutes, until it becomes foamy and doubles in volume.
In a large bowl, mix the flour, milk, salt and oil. Knead about 10 minutes by machine and then 15 minutes by hand, until smooth stiff dough forms and pulls away from the work surface and your fingers. (Alternatively, if you want to be a true cesnica warrior, skip the machine entirely and knead by hand. It’s also excellent workout for toning the arms.) Put the dough on a baking sheet or a plate, cover and let rise for about 30min.
Sprinkle the work surface with flour. Roll the dough into a disk or square less than 1/4 inch thick (the disk should be really big, about 15 inches in diameter). Spread two tablespoons of the butter uniformly across the surface. Fold the disk in half away from yourself, then fold again in half towards yourself, fold again to the left, and then finally fold again in half to the right. (You will end up with a packet of dough.)
Let the dough rest covered for about 20 minutes at room temperature. Then roll the dough again, spread the butter on top of it, and repeat the folding process.
For the third time, let the dough rest covered for about 20 minutes. Roll it again, spread the butter on top of it, and repeat the folding process. During this final folding, place the coin inside the dough.
Let the dough rest covered for another 20 minutes. Grease a 3 quart round casserole (or similarly sized round baking pan, about 9-10 inches in diameter). Roll the dough to the size of the baking pan, place it into the baking pan and let it rise for about 20 minutes.
Heat the oven to 400°F. Brush the top of the bread with the remaining tablespoon of butter and place in the oven. Bake the bread at 400°F for about 20 minutes. When the crust starts to turn golden, reduce temperature to 320°F and bake for another 30 minutes, or until an instant-read thermometer registers 190°F.
Let the bread cool in the pan for about 10 minutes and then remove it from the pan. Serve slightly warm and you will be in heaven.
Aleksandra aka QueenSashy is a scientist by day, and cook, photographer and doodler by night. When she is not writing code and formulas, she blogs about food, life and everything in between on her blog, Three Little Halves. Three Little Halves was nominated for 2015 James Beard Awards and the finalist for 2014 Saveur Best Food Blog Awards. Aleksandra lives in New York City with her other two halves, Miss Pain and Dr. V.