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I think I may make some traditional food for Easter this year. What I love most is a type of rich sweet bread called kozunak. The perfect kozunak is defined by many qualities, but what I find hardest is the texture. First, it should be really tender. Second, it must be very airy. Third, it should be juicy, not as dry as normal bread, but not doughy. Fourth, it should have threads. This means that the bread is broken instead of cut, and the dough should easily separate along lines made by pulling while kneading it. The best way to imagine that is to think of collagen-rich meat taken out of the slow cooker and pulled apart into its muscle fibers. Here is a picture of what the threads should look like (I hope the colours of the original are off, else it isn't the perfect kozunak with that colour ;) and the crumb is denser than usual).

Kozunak

The ratio of the recipe is probably important. It is a very wet dough for yeast, and has enough fat to make a quiche envious. (Also, this is the only bread I know of which is kneaded in oil instead of flour to prevent sticking). A typical recipe is:

1 kg flour [assume all purpose] 
55 g live yeast 
300 g white sugar 
250 g milk [can be partially or wholly substituted for cream] 
250 g butter 
8 eggs 
lemon rind, zests 
vanilla extract 
1 tbsp rum
yolk for glazing
raisins (optional)
almonds (optional)

I am not very good at getting it this way, because there is at least a year between each of my tries, meaning that I don't remember what I did when it went good and when it went wrong. My grandma and all of her friends love to give "surefire advice" on how to get it that way. And the advice of one friend contradicts that of another one (if it isn't internally inconsistent at to start with). I think that you SeasonedAdvicers are less likely to just perpetuate old myths without understanding them than these nice old ladies. So if you are experienced with yeast doughs, I will appreciate your opinion on following factors.

  1. Fat type. This recipe says butter, but there is lots of advice to use lard instead, to make it "more tender". I am not sure that this has any consequence in yeast dough, probably some well-intentioned home cook decided that if it works for pie crust, it works for bread too. But I'd like to hear your opinion.
  2. How many times should I let it rise? The usual procedure is something like Rise yeast in milk - mix everything, knead - rise (ca. 2x volume) - knead - rise (ca. 3x volume) - knead, pull, braid - rise (ca. 2x volume) - bake. But some leave the middle rising out, letting rise a bit more the other times. Is it a simplification, or is the procedure outlined overkill? Are there disadvantages to that much rising?
  3. How much should I knead it each time? Some say lots of kneading in the beginning, the least amount at the end. Others say that the least amount of kneading every time is best. What do you advice?
  4. Optimal oven temperature? It gets thick, because it increases in volume another 2x to 3x before setting, 10 cm isn't unusual. That would speak for a lower temp, around 160°C. But the years I followed this instinct, it got quite dry (maybe I didn't check properly for doneness). So maybe less time at a higher temp. But this is theory, what would an experienced baker suggest?

I think that's about it, but if you have other useful suggestions, please tell. This type of dough has a reputation for being tricky (or is it just the fact that it is rarely made so home bakers are inexperienced? Or that the expectations on the final product are high?) and I'll check the theory again, but help from more experienced bakers would be appreciated.

Edit: maybe I didn't make it entirely clear what puzzles me most. As I see it, I need exuberant gluten formation for the threads (and the long rising supports this theory). But to make it tender and airy I'd think that I want less gluten. So the theory just confuses me this time. I hope that at least the juicy part is taken care of by the abundant fat.

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5 Answers 5

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Damn, that looks good. I've never made this particular type of bread before, but here are some things that I do know which might help:

Butter is (roughly) 10% water and 90% fat, while lard is 100% fat. So if you substitute one for the other, you should adjust the amount of water in the recipe accordingly. The flavor will be a little different, but I bet either one would work.

I would not assume AP flour. In fact, I'd assume high-gluten bread flour. The gluten is what creates those fibers. It's the fat that keeps it tender.

This looks very similar to a brioche, so you might want to look at brioche recipes to learn some of the principles. One thing that most of them will tell you is to to knead the dough to develop the gluten fibers, and then add the butter. This I think is the key. I know that fat can keep gluten molecules from sticking together into strands, so if you add the fat later, you should wind up with strands of gluten surrounded by fat.

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Brioche would be closer to 900g butter in that recipe, so this is a fair bit leaner. Well, at least compared to good brioche! More egg, though. Agree that I'd try bread or even higher gluten (bagel) flour. And a 350F oven. –  derobert Apr 20 '11 at 3:28
    
Interesting comments, but I have yet to shop in a country in Europe beside Italy which has high gluten flour. The original bread is definitely made with all-purpose flour equivalent. I think I'll try the "fat later" thing, and probably use milk and not cream because the milk goes in early. –  rumtscho Apr 20 '11 at 7:46
    
@rumtscho: In sweden you can find high protein wheat flour. Roughly translated it would be called "special wheat flour". –  adamse Apr 24 '11 at 21:13
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The texture reminds me of two things - Italian "cakes" sold in the UK "German" supermarkets at Christmas (which are the colour in the photo), and the Lardy Cake that is made in Buckinghamshire (I mention that because you wanted to know about using lard).

The stringing in the Italian cakes seem to show that they are allowed to "rise into shape" - I am wondering if the key to the process is using two lots of dough, one of which is proved less than the other. Make a parcel of one inside the other?

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I make braided bread every week using an oatmeal buns recipe. It, too, doesn't like to be overworked. It's best with maybe 5 minutes of kneading.

I don't actually think it is the ingredients that create the threads. It may be the braiding. Here are some of my key tips to successful bread: ALWAYS use a thermometer!Use a pattern to hand kneading like this: Fold the top over with your left hand, gently press it in with your right palm, turn the dough a quarter turn clockwise, repeat. Treat it like a baby, not an enemy, lol.

Identifying when dough is "doubled" is very important. To see if the dough is doubled after the first rise, stick 2 fingers into the dough. If it "sighs" and slightly deflates, it is doubled. Deflate completely by gently pressing dough down, not punching, since that can tear the gluten strands. You don't have to squeeze every last bit of air out of it. You could knead it maybe 5 times if you like, but that isn't necessary.

Divide dough into however many strands you want to braid. Roll into ropes, gently elongating, not pulling, because that tears the strands. I sometimes do a hand-over-hand gentle squeeze down the length of the rope and then gently roll it to smooth it. If it is too tight and springy, let it rest 5 minutes and come back to it.

Roll it out on a floured board, coating each rope in a dusting of flour, which I think creates some of the separation of the strands you are looking for. Lay the ropes side-by-side. Then start in the middle and braid to one end, turn it and braid to the other end, so that in the lifting of strands you don't break the ropes. Seal the ends together by pinching.

I slather it with 1 beaten egg with a teaspoon of water beaten into it. My young daughter accidentally discovered that the texture and moistness is very positively affected by repeated brushings till the whole egg is used up on two loaves. I don't know why. You can't argue with success.

By the way, I use active dry yeast, not quick rise. Better flavor. So the following timing is based on that. I preheat my oven for 5 minutes to 200 F and turn it off. I put the braided and brushed loaves into the oven on the greased cookie cookie sheet maybe 15 minutes. I remove the loaves and set them on the stove while the oven preheats to 375 F. I bake them for about 25 minutes, or until they are golden and I hear a hollow sound when I tap the top center of the loaf. This tapping needs to be done in the oven, or immediately upon removal from the oven, because the hot steam from the inside of the bread will soften the crust quickly. You can't tap it 5 minutes later or even a minute later. It won't sound hollow. The top crust on my recipe feels rigid at this point, but as it cools, it softens (and my bread is legendary among my crowd). Cover the bread with a kitchen towel. Five minutes later, remove from the cookie sheet to a cooling rack. Those 5 minutes allow the bread to become less fragile, and the loaves steam off the pan a little. Do remove to a cooling rack at 5 minutes rather than leave on the pan, because that steaming action will cause the bread to become soggy and lose much of its flavor. It would seem logical to put it in plastic as soon as possible to keep the moisture in, but trust me, you will completely ruin the bread if you do this. Cover the bread on the cooling rack with a kitchen towel and let it cool completely. It may take a good hour or more. Leave it under the towel till time to serve. Even all day. If you must enclose it, for transport or whatever, use a paper bag with lots of breathing room. After 3 to 12 hours, you could store it airtight. I don't know. It never lasts that long, lol.

I looked up your kind of bread on google and found this recipe.http://www.food.com/recipe/bulgarian-easter-bread-kozunak-109967

You might want to look at their method and mine and use your family's ingredients and see if you can merge them to come up with what you are looking for. Hope this helps!

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I am not a professional but my understanding is that the threads come from the eggs(1) and this recipe has lots of eggs.

Beating the eggs will chemically change the protein strands so that they stretch and bind in a similar way to gluten when developed, and similar to a brioche. Brioche dough should be beaten in a stand mixer for a total of 30 minutes to get the smooth texture and long threads(2).

So, next time you make this, try beating the eggs before incorporating and then beating the mixture (holding butter aside) until it slaps the side of the bowl. Then add the butter and beat until it comes together again and slaps the side of the bowl. I think it is the eggs and not so much the gluten what gives your recipe its threads.

(1) see The Science of Cooking

(2) see Baking with Julia

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I consulted my literature again before making it and could build a theory behind the whole. Gluten is built by 1) kneading (which encourages protein cross-linking) and 2) waiting. Obviously, I don't want much cross-linking for threads, I want the molecules to bind end-to-end. So in theory, I should let it rise for a very long time, and only occasionaly knead/pull in a direction to align the gluten. This is consistent with usual practice.

As was to be expected, I botched the practical part. That's why I can't confirm it empirically. It was partly my fault (I didn't reduce the amount of yeast in the recipe) and partly the global warming :P (it is unusual that my flat is over 30°C warm at easter, but that's what happened this year). My steps included:

  1. preleaven yeast in milk
  2. make dough without butter, let rise
  3. work melted butter into dough, let rise (thank you @Mike Baranczak for the explanation, now it makes clear why the step is needed - of course, my grandma didn't know that, she puts the butter in from the beginning and then religiously disrupts the raising by kneading)
  4. form and braid dough, put into pans, let rise
  5. bake

With the prescribed amount of fresh yeast and the high temperature, every rising took no longer than 2 hours, and at the and the yeast was really spent and deflating in the last pan. Besides, the recipe may be too rich. The dough wasn't exactly liquid - I could tear pieces off and form them - but the braided strands joined together after 3-4 minutes. I could still see where the boundary between them should have been, but it was soft enough to be a single mass after forming, the viscosity (but not the overall texture) was something similar to "soft peaks" in eggwhite beating.

End result: Extremely tasty. Melted in the mouth. And that unmistakable childhood memory of springtime holiday - I could barely restrain myself from running out and chasing butterflies through the jasmine and lilac bushes.

But nothing even remotely resembling threads.

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