Christmas “Kouloura”, a sweet ceremonial bread
In Zakynthos, my grandmother’s island, we make the round “Kouloura” on Christmas Eve. It is a lovely Lenten sweet ceremonial bread. Every year since I got married, we gather around the table, raise the Kouloura together in our hands, over the incense burner and chant this Byzantine church hymn. We pour a mixture of wine and olive oil crossways over it, which puts out the incense. These 3 elements symbolize the gifts of the Maggi, frankincense, myrrh and gold. Kouloura is the Star leading the way to the manger, the flame of the incense represents Christ’s love. We cut it in equal pieces to the participants and someone will find the “evrima” in his piece, a lucky coin representing baby Jesus. Invited guests are very close and dear to the family. Participation is believed to bring love, strength and renewal for the year ahead.
Yaya Christina, my father’s mother, was born in Athens, but on Christmas Eve we celebrated as Zakynthians when I was a child. And we continue to keep the custom, with all its rituals every year, in our own home too.
Let’s go to the recipe. I have measured and converted grandma’s quantities (1 waterglass and 1 finger of oil, 1 espresso cup of cognac etc.) into ml, grams and measuring cups. In my own kitchen, of course, I keep a few of her cups and glasses to be used exclusively for measuring out her original recipes.
Recipe for Kouloura
- 1.5 kg bread or all-purpose flour
- 330 ml lukewarm oil
- 75 g fresh yeast
- 1 tbsp sugar
- 280 ml orange juice
- 60 ml cognac or cointreau
- 1 tablespoon anise seeds
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 tablespoon cinnamon
- 1 tablespoon ground cloves
- 1 cup finely chopped orange peel
- 1 cup currants
- 1 cup raisins
- 1 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped
Boil the anise seeds with 60 ml of water, strain and keep the tea. Dissolve the yeast and 1 tablespoon of sugar in lukewarm water. Mix together the remaining sugar with the juice, cognac and anise tea in a bowl, until dissolved.
Add half the flour in a separate large mixing bowl and make a hole in the middle. Pour the lukewarm oil into the hole and rub it into the flour little by little with your fingers, until it resembles crumbs. Pour in the yeast with about half of the remaining flour and mix well. Dissolve the baking soda in the liquids and add them all together in to the flour along with the cinnamon, cloves and orange peel. Knead well, adding the flour little by little, until the dough is smooth, elastic and does not stick to the hands. Add in the raisins and walnuts and knead a little until incorporated in the dough.
Grease and flour a very large, 36 cm d baking pan. Wrap a tin with aluminum foil and oil it and flour it as well. You can also use a small tall cake ring. Shape the dough like a ball and pierce it in the center. Using both hands, widen the hole with quick movements and place the dough in the in the baking pan. Place the ring or can in the center so the hole doesn’t close as it rises during baking. Let it rise while you preheat the oven to 170 C / 340 F.
When it has almost doubled, after 30′-40′, bake it for about 50 minutes in the preheated oven. Towards the end, remove the ring or can from the center so that it cooks through. Check after 50′ with a toothpick, then lower the temperature to 140 C / 290 F and let it bake until done, checking every 10 minutes. When ready, take it out of the oven, allow to cool for about 10 minutes, then carefully remove it to a wire rack to cool completely.
You can brush on a little syrup or honey, while hot and sprinkle it with colored sugar or drizzle with icing when cool. I prefer to dust it with some icing sugar, so that it looks a little like snow. Don’t forget the lucky coin!