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Romanian Sourdough Sweet Bread (Cozonac cu maia)

I do this sweet bread every year but it is just this winter that I tried the sourdough version. As always, once I try sourdough, I do not come back to yeast. It will be the case for this bread as well. It is true that it takes time to make it but it worth every minute of it. 

The difference is that the crumb is soft and fluffy. You can also break the crumb into straps. It conserves much better than the yeast one. I am simply impressed by it and I'd like to share with you how I've done it.

I published some versions with yeast before on my blog and you can find them here:

The filling that you chose for it is a personal option. I've put inside 3 of the most common ingredients, but you are free to pick only one, 2 or all. Or you can add others that you like.

I do this bread called "Cozonac" only for Christmas and Easter. Sweet bread is not my highest preference, but this one is a tradition that I know since childhood. I am continuing this tradition, especially for my kids, although I am now living in another country. The smell spread in the house when this cake is prepared for Christmas and Easter resides deep in my memories. I recall when my entire family was reunited a few days before Christmas at my grandparents to prepare all the traditional food. Those were special days. They were starting with children carols, when we were singing and knocking on the neighbour doors for pretzels and walnuts. Then it was the day for "cozonaci" and the day of pork meat preparations. Many of these are gone, and some traditions as well. But if I can bring something from those days into my house to keep alive the Christmas spirit I do it, no matter how much work is needed. This sweet bread is one of the few that I can continue, especially during this weird year.

My children love it, myself as well. My favourite version for me is with lokum because it is very sweet. My children also pick them from the slices, but I was doing the same as a child.

This is a sweet bread linked to traditions, memories, aroma and holidays. It is a treat to share with family and friends in joyful moments. It is also a delicious breakfast or dessert.


Ingredients:

Preferment:

  • 300g stiff sourdough (50% hydration) (scroll down to see how to make it starting from 100% hydration sourdough starter)

Ingredients for dough:

  • 300ml of milk
  • 15g salt
  • 125g soft butter
  • 4 eggs (~230g eggs)
  • 825g strong bread flour
  • 100g sugar
  • 1 heap tablespoon of lemon zest
  • the above preferment

Ingredients for filling:
  • 2 egg whites (reserve the yolks for brushing)
  • 2 tablespoons of sugar
  • 1 tablespoon cocoa powder
  • 300g Turkish delight
  • 200g raisins
  • 200g ground walnuts

Directions:

The first you need to prepare is the preferment. I didn't include this as part of the recipe, but there are 2 ways of doing it starting from a 100% hydration sourdough starter.
Option 1: (the quick version) In the evening before the start of the recipe, make the 50% stiff sourdough by using:
  • 50g of sourdough at 100% hydration
  • 175g of strong bread flour
  • 75g of water
It will be difficult to mix it in a bowl or jar, so when roughly combined put it on the table and stretch it with a rolling pin in a long stray. Then, roll it and stretch it again with a rolling pin. Do this 3-4 times to ensure that the sourdough is well distributed. Then put it in an airtight container and leave it overnights at room temperature. The next day it should be well risen.
Option 2: (the long but better version). You start the stiff sourdough 3 days in advance.
[Day-3] in the evening you transform the 100% sourdough into 50% sourdough by using:
  • 10g sourdough 100% hydration
  • 35g of strong bread flour
  • 15g of water
The method is the same as described above, using the rolling pin.
[Day-2 morning and evening and day-1 in the morning], you feed the stiff starter with the following quantities:
  • 12g of stiff sourdough (50% hydration)
  • 32g strong bread flour
  • 16g water
[Day-1 in the evening], you prepare for the 300g stiff starter requested by the recipe by using:
  • 60g stiff sourdough (50% hydration) - which is, in fact, the entire quantity prepared in the morning
  • 160g strong bread flour
  • 80g of water
This stiff sourdough is prepared for mainly one reason: keep away the sour taste from the sweet bread. Option one will be just a bit sourer, option 2 instead doesn't have any trace of sourness. At the limit, if you are not bothered by a bit of sourness in this sweet bread, then you can try an option 3 and use 100% hydration sourdough instead of 50% and reduce the quantity of milk with 50g. I didn't try this option but if I am, I'll come back to you with my feedback.

Another mention is that you need to start this recipe early in the morning as it will take 14hours after you finish baking it. If you do not intend to do everything in one day, you may split into 2 days with a retard in the fridge just before the shaping time. In that case, the next day when you are ready to continue the recipe, take the dough out and leave it in the bowl to warm-up to the room temperature for 2 hours. After, you can take it out of the bowl, divide it and shape it with the recipe as described below.

With this information in mind, now you can start the recipe.
  1. [8:00] Mix flour+milk + eggs. I start the recipe by hydrating the flour with milk and eggs to start developing the gluten network. I mix the flour with milk and eggs and let the dough rest for one hour. This is the autolyse process. It is not common to add eggs in the autolyse phase but the milk is not enough to hydrate the entire quantity of flour, so eggs should be introduced now. I use a mixer to help me, but this can be easily done by hand. At this stage, I only need to well combine these 3 ingredients. This is a stiff dough and my mixer struggles with it. Using the slowest speed of the mixer is a must to avoid burning it. When needed, I stop the mixer and scrape the bowl of unincorporated flour. When the dough is formed, I like to finalise it by hand and I let it to relax for one hour.
  2. [9:00] Sourdough + salt + zest. Time to add the starter. Combining a stiff sourdough with a stiff dough is not an easy task. Make sure you break both in chunks to facilitate the mixing. e most difficult part of this recipe. If kneading by hand it requires good muscles and effort. The mixer will struggle a bit also but in 8-10 minutes will be well mixed. Add also the salt and the lemon zest and mix at the slowest speed. Then, let the dough rest at 26ºC for 30 minutes.
  3. [9:30] Sugar + butter. Adding butter and sugar in the dough changes completely the rules of the game. Add them in 4-5 steps with a mix of 2 minutes in between. Butter and sugar make the dough soft and sticky. The stiff dough that you had before is becoming softer and silkier. After mixing, let the dough to rest for 20 minutes. In my notes, it is mentioned 30 minutes, but this includes the mixing time also.
  4. [10:00] Stretch and fold 1. The dough looks so different now, I can even try a windowpane test. It is not anymore that massive stiff dough. I perform now 3 sets of stretch and folds at 1 hour interval. This gives structure to the dough. After the first stretch and fold, let the dough rest for 1 hour.
  5. [11:00] Stretch and fold 2. I perform a second stretch and fold in the bowl. You can stretch and fold the dough until it doesn't let you anymore.
  6. [12:00] Stretch and fold 3. I perform the 3rd stretch and fold and again let the dough rest. 
    Now, if you decide to split the recipe in 2 days, you put the bowl with the dough in the fridge. The next day, you take it out and leave it 2 hours to warm-up and continue the recipe. If you do the recipe in one day, then you can just go to the next step.
  7. [13:00] Filling + shape. Prepare the filling. Beat the egg whites with a mixer or by hand. Add the sugar and continue to beat until dissolved. Add the cocoa powder but mix by hand in the beginning (with the mixer off) to avoid a cloud of powder. 
    I set this aside and I prepare the baking pans. I coat them with a bit of butter on all inner sides. Then, I sprinkle flour over that will avoid the dough to stick to the pan.
    Finally, I prepare the dough for shaping. I oil lightly the board and the rolling pin. No water and no flour is used to handle the dough now. dough in the recipe is enough for 3 pans. I have 2 big pans and one smaller. I divide then the dough in 3 accordingly. Then, the fun part begins. I stretch the dough with the rolling pin as long as I can. The width should be similar to the width of the pan. I spread a part of the cocoa filling over the sheet of dough. Then, I sprinkle walnuts, then, the lokum. Lokum is also known as Turkish delight. It is a fruit flavoured gelly sweet with nice colours. The lasts come the raisins that I hydrated in rum before. The choice and the number of the filling ingredients may vary, but cocoa, lokum and nuts are the most popular. Now I roll the dough with the filling inside and place it in a pan. And I do the same for the remaining 2 pieces of dough. Now, the dough rests for the final proofing for 8 hours at 26ºC.
  8. [21:00] Brush the top. There is no scoring for this bread but you can make it look nicer on the top. Before baking, I brush them with a mixture of egg and milk. 
  9. Bake. The oven should be preheated at 180ºC with a steaming system inside. I bake the first 15 minutes with steam and the oven ventilator off. Then, I open the ventilator and continue to bake at the same temperature for 35 minutes. I bake in total around 50 minutes at 180ºC. Loaves with sugar get brown very quickly if baked at very high temperature. So pay attention: only 180ºC for this bread! 
  10. [21:50] Cool. When the baking is finished, take them out of the pans and let them cool on the side on a wire rack for minimum 2 hours.
  11. [23:50] Cut. If you are curious to see how it looks inside, stay late to finish cooling and cut a slice. If not, you can try it the next day for breakfast. It is so delicious with a cup of tea!

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