Serbian Christmas Bread (Sweet Česnica)

Serbian Cesnica Christmas bread
Tatiana Dmitrijevic
  • Total: 110 mins
  • Prep: 20 mins
  • Cook: 90 mins
  • Yield: 12 servings
Nutritional Guidelines (per serving)
236 Calories
15g Fat
17g Carbs
8g Protein
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Nutrition Facts
Servings: 12 servings
Amount per serving
Calories 236
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 15g 19%
Saturated Fat 7g 37%
Cholesterol 175mg 58%
Sodium 312mg 14%
Total Carbohydrate 17g 6%
Dietary Fiber 1g 5%
Protein 8g
Calcium 104mg 8%
*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.
(Nutrition information is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate.)

This recipe for Serbian ćesnica, or Christmas bread, has a hint of sweetness. Elaborate versions are topped with ornamental decorations and religious symbols made from a special sculpting dough that contains no yeast and will retain the shape it's formed in when baked. The common tie 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. 

Ingredients

  • For the Bread Dough:
  • 2 cups milk (lukewarm, warmed to 105 degrees)
  • 4 teaspoons active dry yeast
  • 4 tablespoons sugar
  • 4 large egg yolks (at room temperature; reserve the whites)
  • 4 ounces/1 stick butter (softened)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 5 1/2 to 6 cups all-purpose flour
  • For the Sculpting Dough:
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 large egg yolk (room-temperature; reserve the white)
  • 1 tablespoon milk (or ​as needed)

Steps to Make It

Note: while there are multiple steps to this recipe, this bread is broken down into workable categories to help you better plan for preparation and cooking.

Make the Bread Dough

  1. Gather the ingredients.

  2. 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.

  3. Add 4 egg yolks, the butter, salt, and 5 1/2 cups of the 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.

  4. 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.

  5. Lightly coat a deep round baking pan or the ceramic liner from a small slow cooker with cooking spray.

  6. Punch down dough and knead a few minutes to release any air bubbles. Transfer to a prepared pan and tuck a sterilized silver coin in the dough.

  7. Cover and let rise until doubled.

  8. Decorate with the sculpting dough.

Make the Sculpting Dough and Decorate

  1. Gather the ingredients.

  2. While bread dough is rising, make the sculpting dough. In a small bowl, mix the flour, yolk, and milk to make a pliable dough. 

  3. Pinch off pieces of sculpting dough and roll by hand to create the decorations.

  4. 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 the Bread

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 F. Brush the entire top of the bread lightly, sculptures and all, with egg white.

  2. 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.

  3. Cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack and let cool completely top side up.

  4. 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.