If it’s January 7, it’s Božić – Christmas for the Serbian Orthodox people! Because our church calendar follows the Julian calendar, we are thirteen days behind all other Christians in celebrating the birth of Jesus. Only the Russian Orthodox and the monks of Mount Athos in Greece follow the same.
Several years ago, I woke up to a radio program they called “The Little Christmas”. The warm sound of a Russian men’s church choir singing a cappella filled the air and I was overjoyed that our Christmas was receiving some recognition here in North America. It is a Christmas far less commercialized, with many interesting customs.
As a child, I remember watching in awe on Christmas Eve (Badnje Veče), as the priest lit the badnjak (yule log). This is a ritual that symbolizes light and sacrifice, so that the fields are fertile in the coming year and the family has health and happiness. Every family received a small branch of the badnjak, which was decorated with dried fruit, wheat, candy, hazelnuts, walnuts and coins. The church floor was covered in hay, a reminder of Christ’s birthplace.
On Christmas Day, we woke up early to see what small gifts Božić Bata (Serbian Santa), left for us in our shoes by the door. Usually it was a small gift, an apple or an orange, nuts and a piece of candy. Very modest, indeed. But the highlight of the day was the Christmas feast. It usually included a whole pig, roasted over a period of several hours on a spit, sarma (stuffed cabbage leaves) and a special round loaf of bread called česnica. Before baking the česnica the hostess slips a coin in the dough. When it is time to feast, the family gathers in a circle and each member pulls a piece of the česnica, hoping to find the coin in their portion. The promise of health and good luck for the rest of the year is at stake!
Several years ago, I came across a good recipe for česnica published by ‘Karen in California’ on Virtual Tourist. Here it is, including my revisions for using instant yeast:
The beauty about this recipe is that you don’t need to ‘proof’ the yeast, or test it for its freshness. Simply combine it with the flour and it’s good to go!
5 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for kneading
1 tablespoon (1 packet) instant yeast
1 cup water
1 cup milk
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 stick (4 oz) unsalted butter, cut into about 8 pieces
3 eggs, divided use
You will also need a candy thermometer to measure the temperature of the liquids.
Put flour and yeast in bowl of mixer and blend with a paddle attachment. In a large glass measuring bowl, combine water, milk, sugar, salt and butter pieces. Microwave until butter is melted and sugar is dissolved. Let cool until the temperature measures 120°F – 130°F.
Lightly beat two eggs with a fork in a medium bowl to break them up. Add a small amount of milk mixture to temper the eggs. Add eggs to the rest of the milk mixture.
Turn mixer speed to low. Slowly pour milk mixture to flour. When incorporated, beat at medium speed for about 2 minutes. The mixture will be sticky.
Pour about 2 tablespoon of olive oil in the bottom of a large bowl and spread it on the bottom.
‘Flour’ a counter space with about 1 cup of flour. Pour dough onto flour and knead for about 5 minutes, incorporating most of the flour. Place dough in a well-oiled bowl, and then flip the dough over so that all sides are oily. Cover the bowl with a towel and let it rest in a warm place until doubled in size, about 30 minutes.
Lightly grease a large round baking pan (I use a 12-inch round one) with olive oil and set aside.
Add a little more flour to the counter space and place the beautiful, soft, risen dough on it. Cut a small piece off for the cross decoration and put it aside. Lightly flour the top of the dough and fold the dough over itself 3 or 4 times. Hide the coin in the dough and forget about where you placed it! Place it in the baking pan. Roll the remaining dough into 2 strips and place them on the dough in the shape of a large cross. Cover and let it rise in a warm place for an additional 30 minutes, or until it fills up the pan.
Beat the remaining egg with 1 teaspoon of water in a small bowl and brush the top of the dough gently with it.
Bake in a preheated 350°F oven for until well browned and baked through, about 40 minutes.
Enjoy the česnica with your family and friends and may the person who gets the coin have good luck and great health for the rest of the year!
One final note on this special day goes to my special brother, Božidar, who interrupted my mother’s preparations for the feast and came in a hurry on Božić. Bož was initially named ‘Milan’, after two uncles, and went by that name during his formative years. That is, until a sweet old Serbian lady exclaimed in complete shock that my brother, being a special gift from God brought his own name by being born on Christmas day, and what were my parents thinking?! Sretan Rođendan, Bož, and I’m glad they finally got your name right!