A taste of the past – Vianocka – braided sweet bread

Valerian got a funny Slovak cookbook a few years ago, Z Kuchyne starého Prešporka (from the kitchen of old Pressburg) by Peter Ševčovič. Pressburg is the German name for Bratislava, and the book is full of quirky cooking advice from the Bratislava of yesterday, collected from average and not-so-average people, since there are some recipes for living on the street, including how to cook pigeons and alley cats. I’ve skipped right over those to a recipe for a Slovak favorite, even today: vianočka, a kind of sweet braided bread.

The name vianočka means “Christmassy” but in fact this bread is an everyday item, something you pick up at the grocery store. Our kids are especially fond of an Austrian brand that we refer to as “squishy bread” because it’s packed full of artificial preservatives to keep it soft for for all eternity. When baking at home of course, we stick to natural ingredients!

The vianočka available these days is usually sweet and has a hint of lemon flavor. This old recipe from the book makes a rich, spicy loaf, delicious sliced and toasted or with jam.

Vianočka- braided sweet bread, adapted from Z Kuchyne starého Prešporka

The dough had a strange texture after the first rise; if you leave it to rise overnight in the fridge, give it plenty of time to warm up the next day before you start to work with it for best results.

Ingredients

Makes one large loaf

  • 1 star anise
  • 4 whole cloves
  • 1 vanilla bean
  • zest of one lemon
  • 5½ cups/550 grams flour
  • 1 packet instant yeast
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • 6 Tbs/80 grams sugar
  • scant 1¼ cup/250 ml milk
  • 4 oz/100 grams butter
  • 2 egg yolks
  • ½ cup/40 grams raisins
  • For topping

  • One egg yolk beaten with about a teaspoon of water
  • ¼ cup/20 grams slivered almonds (optional)

Method

  • Using a mortar and pestle, pound the star anise, cloves, and vanilla pod to a fine powdery paste.
  • In a small saucepan, heat the milk and butter together in a small pan, until just below boiling. Turn off the heat and add the spices. Set aside to cool.
  • In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, yeast, salt, sugar, and lemon zest. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in the milk mixture. Add the two egg yolks. Mix well until a soft dough forms; add the raisins and mix until incorporated.
  • Turn the dough out onto a clean surface and knead until it is soft and shiny, about 5 minutes. Place the dough in a clean bowl, cover the bowl with plastic and allow the dough to rise until doubled, about 2 hours. You can also put it in the refrigerator overnight.
  • Divide the dough in half. Divide one half into four equal-sized pieces. Divide the other half in half again, then divide one of those pieces into thirds, the other in two. You will have nine pieces of dough in three groups of descending size.
  • Roll each piece of dough into a rope; all the ropes should be of equal length, but fatter or skinnier depending on the size of the piece.
  • Make a four-strand braid with the four biggest pieces. Make a three-strand braid with the medium pieces, and place it on top of the first braid. Twist the two smallest ropes together, and stack them on top of the two other braids. You may want to stick a toothpick at each end to pin the braids all together (I didn’t and the top kind of slid over).
  • Place the loaf on a greased baking sheet and cover with a cloth. Allow to rise in a warm place for 45 minutes.
  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees F/190 C.
  • Brush the loaf with the egg wash. Sprinkle the almonds over the top, if desired.
  • Bake for 50-55 minutes. If the top starts to get too dark, cover the browned parts with a piece of foil.
  • Allow to cool completely before slicing.

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