If there is something that I truly love about Romania, that must be the local food. While I’m not crazy at all for the fatty traditional foods that we have, there are some gems that are worth sharing with the world. And that is sweet bread.
But this sweet bread recipe is particularly special, because we only make it once a year: on the 9th of March. It has a religious connection and I will share the story behind it too. Simply put, this recipe is sweet bread, glazed with honey and topped with crushed walnuts.
First things first: the story behind this traditional Romanian recipe.
Actually, it might not even be such a Romanian recipe, since the action happened in Turkey. Anyway… around 320 a. C., 40 Christian roman soldiers were condemned do death by freezing in the lake Sebaste, because they refused to worship the Roman gods. It’s said that during the night, the lake’s ice melted and golden halos appeared on top of each soldier (which will give the shape of this dessert). The soldiers were killed anyway and their bravery is widely acknowledged in the Christian world – they are celebrated each year, on the 9th of March.
While I don’t know exactly why we have sweet bread to celebrate this, the “8” shape of this dessert it’s believed to resemble the halos that appeared on top of the soldiers’ heads, and they also look like a tiny men too. So you can pick what story better floats your boat.
1. Start by mixing the wet ingredients. Put the milk and water in a measuring mug and put in in the microwave for a few seconds. You just want it lukewarm – otherwise, you risk to cook the eggs. Then add the lemon zest, 2 eggs, and the sugar and mix everything well until well combined and the sugar is melted.
2. In a large bowl, stiff the flour and add the dried yeast and a pinch of salt and mix it all together.
3. Pour the wet ingredients over the dry ingredients mixture, little by little and knead the dough. If you have a standing mixer, your job just got easier. If not, you can still do it by hand. You should have a soft dough, that is slightly sticky. Keep in mind that you might need some extra flour on hand here since some flours are more absorbing than others.
4. Let the dough rest for 30 minutes in a warm place, covered with a clean kitchen towel. It should double in size during this time.
While the dough rests, you can crush the walnuts and prepare the egg wash. You want the walnuts finely chopped since they will stick better to the sweet bread. I used a food processor to finely chop them. Alternatively, you can add some extra sugar or cinnamon to the walnuts.
5. After the dough doubled in size, pre-heat the oven at 180 C and start shaping the sweet bread.
6. To give the representative “8” or infinity shape, take a small piece of dough and form it into a ball with your hands. The dough ball should fit your fist. You might also want to use some flour since the dough might stick a little.
7. Rub the ball of dough between your hands in order to form a long, finger-thick strip of dough.
8. Bring the ends together in order to form a circle, then twist the circle in the middle, in order to form the infinity shape – just like in the images below.
9. Put them in a baking tray lined with parchment paper and let them rest for 10 minutes, then brush them with the egg wash.
10. Bake the sweet bread for 20 minutes, or until golden brown on the top and bottom, at 180 C.
After the sweet bread is baked, let it cool down for 5 minutes. It will be easier to handle.
11. Using a pastry brush, brush the runny honey over the sweet bread. If you don’t have runny honey, just give it 5 seconds in the microwave and it will melt.
12. Sprinkle the crushed walnuts on top and this one-time-each-year dessert is ready to be enjoyed!
Based on how large or small you’ll make the sweet bread, you’ll end up having more or fewer pieces. Just keep in mind that they will double in size when baking.
The sweet bread lasts well for up to one week. It’s better if you store it in an air-tight container, to prevent them from drying.
Although we have this only once each year, I think that’s what makes them so special. They are locally called “mucenici” or martyrs in English. What it’s even more interesting about this recipe is that it’s local, from the area I was born. There’s a different version of it in the South of the country, and they look like pasta.
I really hope you give this Romanian sweet bread recipe a try since it’s truly delicious!