Paraphrasing Queen Marie Antoinette Josèphe (1755-1793) of France, who seems to have soothed the hungry people with the line: "let them eat sweet bread!", as proof of her generosity, we could say: if you have sweet bread, you must have wine with it. And a little red Christmas flower!
The historical sweet leavened bread
On Europe Day, on 9 May 2006, Café Europe was held simultaneously in 27 cafés in the 25 EU Member States, plus the two then candidates Romania and Bulgaria. At the time, the country holding the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union proposed for the Balkan countries: the sweet bread to represent Romania , while Bulgaria had milky rice pudding, Greece vasilopita, and Slovenia, a complicated cake called Prekmurska gibanica.
The sweet bread (cozonac) is found in Romania, Bulgaria (where it is called kozunak), Serbia, Northern Macedonia, and Greece. However, its origin is much more distant and relatively controversial. Great Britain boasts that the first recipe for making leavened sweet bread was written in 1718. Other sources say that the ancestor of this kind of sweet bread is the Italian Panettone, which has been prepared since the time of the Roman Empire.
What is so magical about the sweet bread?
The sweet bread recipe is based on flour, milk, eggs, butter, sugar, yeast, and salt. The sweet bread made from these ingredients is enriched with different fillings: ground walnut, cocoa, ground poppyseed, diced Turkish delight, raisins, and candied fruits. The filling composition is flavored with different essences, according to the preference of the person preparing the sweet bread or those who will eat it: rum, vanilla, orange, pistachio, or spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom.
The filling that can be seen in the sweet bread section, is like a swirl, due to the way the full-filled dough is twisted and placed, cramming it into the narrow pan, from which almost half of it will spill out anyway during slow oven baking. This image of the sweet bread, with its brown, glossy crust, spilling over the tray, is the hallmark of Christmas or Easter celebrations, in the Romanians.
It’s pretty hard to do and not everyone manages to do it. You have to have a certain cosmic energy in you, to knead the dough. I’ve never even tried to make it, although I should have learned because my mother was a great cook and made great cakes.
My mother was the youngest of five sisters. They all learned to knead the dough and cook at home. But she never had any cake. Either it didn’t "rise", or it wasn’t baked properly, or it was too sweet, or too hard, or it was burnt, or unbaked! Her older sister, however, had golden hands. She never failed! Her sweet breads were always perfect, just as huge, tasty, and fluffy every time. (I think they were terroir sweet breads!)
At one time, even my mother would sign up on my aunt’s list for 1-2 sweet breads before the holidays to make sure she wouldn’t waste her time and ends up, as always, in a failure. That’s when I understood, child being, that to bake sweet bread, you have to be some kind of magician or at least a bit of a sorceress!
More than likely, with modern bread machines, it would be less complicated, but hand-kneading the sweet breads is an art and charges that dough with the energy of the one making it.
Sweet bread or Cozonac, a Romanian cultural product
Sweet bread is our connection to childhood. It’s the dessert we were sure to have, at least for the holidays. Many days after the event had passed, the sweet bread was present in the school lunchbox, when we exchanged slices with different fillings between us, after showing each other off.
The sweet bread is also present in childhood songs about joy and socializing, where the little animals were personified: "what a beautiful party is now at the edge of the lake/ the little frightened frogs have wine and sweet bread cake".
Oh yes! Sweet leavened bread without wine is like a wedding without fiddlers or stuffed cabbage rolls without ‘tuica’! So close is the link between the two components of the Christmas or Easter basket, that their mere verbal association leads you to think of soul cleanliness, humility, and love of man.
How to make sweet bread pairing
The wine that accompanies the sweet bread does not necessarily have to be matched with the dough, because "bread and wine" is an ancient pairing and can be combined in any way. In the case of sweet-leavened bread, it is important to pair the wine with the filling.
- Ground walnut requires oxidative wines, maderized wines, white Port wines, Sauternes wines, ice wine, Vin Santo, Tokaj wines, or "straw wine", as we make it, from grapes dried on mats or harvested when the grape berries are botrytized;
- Hazelnuts, peanuts, and almonds , although rarely used as fillings for traditional buns, are also acceptable with sparkling wines, Champagne, or Cremants that have been on the lees for a long time, or oxidative white wines;
- Ground poppy seed – I would add to a filled cake pink wines, as soft in smell and taste as the petals of the maize that give these seeds, as small as they are small, as much appreciated in the kitchen.
- Cocoa – red wines: Pinot noir, Merlot, Syrah, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Mourvedre, Tempranillo, Touriga nacional
- The combination of walnut and cocoa – very common, could attract more robust red wines: Feteasca neagra, Cabernet Sauvignon,, Blaufrankisch, Negru de Dragasani, Novac, Babeasca neagra, Cadarca;
- Raisins – slightly aromatic rose wines: Busuioaca de Bohotin, Gewurztraminer with maceration or whites: Chardonnay, Pinot gris or Viognier;
- Turkish delight (lokum) – dry white or rose wines, with high acidity, that can temper the sweetness of that jelly with different flavors and colors: unoaked Chardonnay any type of Muscat, Viognier, Pinot gris, Sylvaner or Cinsault;
- Candied white fruits – go well in sweet bread, if paired with Chardonnay, Grasa de Cotnari, Cramposie selectionata or Pinot gris;
- Candied red or black fruits – have a wider variety of options if they populate the core of the sweet bread on your table: Cornalin, Feteasca neagra, Garanoir, Malbec, Montepulciano, Mourvedre, Nebbiolo, Nero d’Avola, Pinot noir, Pinotage, Primitivo, Sangiovese, Syrah, Tannat.
Very important is the predominant essence in the sweet bread filling.
A sweet bread with the essence of:
- Rum – go with full-bodied red wines that have been in contact with oak
- Vanilla – can be paired with white wines: Muscat, Riesling, Semillon or light, unoaked reds
- Orange – dry white wines, sparkling wines, aromatic whites: Chenin blanc, Kerner, Muscat, Assyrtiko, and if there is candied orange peel in the cake, even Negroamaro or Teroldego
The sweet bread with cinnamon, nutmeg , or cardamomis a good match for Muscat, Gewurztraminer, Pinot gris or, if the aroma is powerful, Cabernet Sauvignon, or Nebbiolo.
White sweet breads are very much appreciated in the company of sparkling wines, and the colored ones, in which the cocoa powder is almost as much as flour, the "darker" they are, the better they go with old, oaked wines, whether white or red.
Whatever kind of sweet bread you have chosen, one of these wines will be the ideal match, if you try to respect a little what I have told you.
Through the program "Open the Romanian Wine" , Carrefour offers us: