Elaborate versions are topped with ornamental decorations and religious symbols made from a special sculpting dough that contains no yeast and will retain the shaped it's formed in when baked (recipe provided).
The common tie between these two recipes is the silver coin baked inside. It is believed whoever finds it will have good luck in the coming year.
The word ćesnica is derived from the Serbian word čest, meaning "to share." And that is how the bread is eaten -- at a communal table where it is rotated three times counterclockwise before each person tears off a piece.
- For the Bread Dough:
- 2 cups milk (lukewarm, warmed to 105 degrees)
- 4 teaspoons yeast (active dry)
- 4 tablespoons sugar
- 4 large egg yolks (room-temperature; reserve the whites)
- 4 ounces/1 stick butter (softened)
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 5 1/2 to 6 cups flour (all-purpose)
- For the Sculpting Dough:
- 1 cup flour (all-purpose)
- 1 large egg yolk (room-temperature; reserve the white)
- 1 tablespoon milk (or as needed)
Make the Bread Dough
- In the bowl of a stand mixer or other large bowl, combine lukewarm milk and yeast until dissolved. Add sugar and let stand 10 minutes.
- Add 4 egg yolks, softened butter, salt, and 5 1/2 cups flour and mix thoroughly. Knead 7 to 10 minutes by machine or 15 minutes by hand until a smooth, stiff dough forms and pulls away from the sides of the bowl and your fingers. If too sticky, add up to 1/2 cup additional flour.
- Place dough in a bowl that has been lightly coated with cooking spray, turning once to coat both sides. Cover and let rise until doubled. If, when the dough is touched lightly in the center, it springs back, it needs to rise more.
- Lightly coat a deep round baking pan or the ceramic liner from a small slow cooker with cooking spray. Punch down dough and knead a few minutes to release any air bubbles. Transfer to prepared pan and tuck a sterilized silver coin in the dough. Cover and let rise until doubled. Decorate with sculpting dough (see below).
Make the Sculpting Dough and Decorate
- While bread dough is rising make the sculpting dough. In a small bowl, mix 1 cup flour, 1 egg yolk, and enough milk to make a pliable dough.
- Pinch off pieces of sculpting dough and roll by hand to create the decorations. Dip the decorations into the reserved egg whites and "glue" them on the risen bread.
- Typically, the bread is divided into quadrants with a braided rope or flat piece of dough in the shape of a cross. Religious symbols, or shapes denoting the occupation or hobby of members of the household, are placed in the four quadrants. A braided rope or flat ribbon of dough around the circumference of the bread is the final touch.
Bake and Serve the Bread
- Heat the oven to 400 F. Brush the entire top of the bread lightly, sculptures and all, with egg white. Bake for 10 minutes, then cover loosely with a foil tent and reduce the heat to 350 F and bake 50 to 60 minutes or until an instant-read thermometer registers 190 degrees.
- Cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack and let cool completely top side up.
- The bread takes a place of honor on the Christmas table along with sprouted wheat that was planted on St. Nicholas Day, walnuts, dried fruit, fresh fruit, and a lighted candle.