Anastasia inherited her French mother's love of cooking and dabbling in the kitchen at an early age. Bon appetit!
No Holiday Would Be Complete Without Sirnica
Sirnica (seer-nit-za) is such an old recipe that people debate as to how it got its unusual name. "Sir" in Croatian does not mean gentleman, but "cheese." My best guess is that it is shaped like a traditional round of cheese because there is no cheese in the recipe. People sometimes add it, though not commonly (I have never tried it, but you never know!).
The recipe is light and eggy, with citrus, vanilla, rum and other wonderful flavorings. This recipe makes eight sirnicas, which can be baked four at a time on a square-shaped cookie sheet.
At any time of year, but especially springtime, this recipe can be found in bakeries and people's homes. In Dalmatia, people bake sirnica on Great Saturday, the day before Easter. The tradition is that during Lent, no one eats sweets. The day before Easter, they are freshly baked, then brought to the church, where the priest gives them a special blessing!
It's important to watch the clock when making this recipe. Although sirnica is not difficult to make, you will be working your schedule around it for most of the day. There are two options:
- Leave the dough to rise before going to bed and get up once to punch it down, or
- wait until morning and have it in the oven by the afternoon. (This is how I like to do it.)
- 8:00 am: Start mixing.
- 9:00 am: Leave it to rise (if not before).
- 11:30 am: Punch down the dough.
- 12:30 pm: Punch it down again and shape the loaves.
- 1:30 pm: The loaves should be risen by now. Prepare to bake.
- 2:00 pm: Bake!
The baking time is 30 minutes—20 minutes, then put on the topping, then another 10 minutes, so each batch will take around 40 minutes maximum to execute. Unless you have two ovens, the baking process (another 40 minutes) must be repeated.
If you have to be in church for the Holy Saturday Blessing (typically around 5 pm), this leaves you plenty of time to place the cooled-down sirnica loaf into a decorative basket with festive hard-cooked Easter eggs and get yourself dressed up with some lipstick and a fresh blouse.
Rest assured, with this step-by-step guide, you will make a perfect Easter bread.
- 18 fresh eggs (10 eggs, 6 egg yolks, and another 2 eggs for the topping)
- 250 grams butter or margarine
- 5-pound/2-kilogram package all-purpose flour
- 1-pound package cake flour, milk
- 1/2 cup vegetable or sunflower oil
- 1 pound sugar
- 20 sugar cubes
- 2 tablespoons vanilla extract
- A generous pinch of salt
- Sirnica flavoring (pear brandy, rum, and cherry brandy are all good additions—approximately 1 tablespoon of each)
- Lemon and orange rind (at least 1 piece of each variety). Squeeze a little juice.
- 8 pieces of cubed fresh yeast, if available, is the best option. If not, use 16 envelopes of the powdered variety.
Let's begin! I like to start on Saturday morning around 8 am. This ensures that the sirnica, if everything goes as planned, will be in the oven no later than 2 or—at the very latest—3 pm.
I suggest you put on an apron and tell your family that you are not available.
Step 1: Make the Dough
- In a plastic bowl, combine the yeast with a glass of warm milk and let it rise. Once it starts bubbling, add a scoop of flour and keep it covered to the side.
- On the stove, warm up the margarine or butter slowly, combined with a glass of milk. When completely melted and cooled down, add the half-cup of liquid oil.
- Now, in a separate large bowl, combine the pound of sugar and the eggs, flavorings, vanilla, lemon and orange rind. Blend together for a good 10 minutes until the mixture is homogeneous.
- When the butter-milk-oil mixture is fully cooled, add it to this bowl.
- Now add half of the flour, but slowly. Keep mixing to ensure that there are no lumps. Add the yeast mixture on top.
- Continue mixing the remainder of the flour, using dough hooks if you have them. If not, take off your rings, wash your hands and mix by hand.
- Add extra flour if needed, making sure the dough is not sticky and has a degree of "bounce" to it.
- The cake flour is added at the end. It has a slightly finer consistency and helps to "finish off" the dough. Don't lick your fingers. Add flour to your fingers, add it to the bowl and then go wash up.
- Put the entire mixture into an extra-large bowl. If you make an "imaginary hug" in front of you, that is the approximate size that your bowl needs to be.
- Put the bowl full of sirnica dough in a warm place, like on the washing machine or near the TV, and cover it with blankets, a jeans jacket—whatever—to help it rise faster.
- If you started at 8 am, the dough should probably be risen by around 11:30 am. Punch it down and let it rise again, carefully covering with blankets like before. In another hour or so, you will be shaping the dough into 8 loaves.
A Note About the Loaves: Better smaller than too big. If they are large to begin with, once they rise, they will be too huge to fit onto the cookie sheet, and then there is a problem that the dough isn't fully baked in the middle. I've found that a diameter of 8 inches is about right for the sirnica loaves. They finish in 30 minutes, which means the sugar won't burn and the middle will be baked through. When they come out of the oven, they are invariably larger than when they went in.
Step 2: Shape the Loaves
At this point, you will need a sheet for a single bed, preferably white and cottony. Using a scale to ensure consistency, take a chunk of flour and shape it into a circle, pushing the dough to the center of each loaf with your fingers.
Arrange the sheet lengthwise, then fold in half. With the sheet, make wells for 8 sirnica loaves. The top portion of the sheet will cover the loaves. Put a blanket on top and let them rise (this should take another hour or so).
If the loaves feel "light," they are probably ready to bake.
Step 3: Make the Sugar Topping
In a small bowl, combine 1 egg and 1 egg yolk. Mix well. Add a drop or 2 of water for consistency. Using a pastry brush or the back of a tablespoon, spread it all over the top of the sirnica.
Now you need to crush some sugar cubes for an attractive topping. There are several ways to do this. A knife is one way. Another is to wrap a handful of sugar cubes in a clean dishtowel and crush them using a rock or a hammer. The basic idea is to smash them into smaller pieces and sprinkle the mixture on top of the egg.
Step 4: Bake Your Sirnica Loaves
- Heat the oven. I bake at 180˚C/350˚F or a bit less, as ovens may vary.
- Like always, grease your cookie sheet. Place on the middle rack in the oven. Better to bake 4 at a time and have a great result. The other 4 sirnicas can wait their turn in the "sheet"!
- Around each of the 4 sirnicas, I put a strip of foil. The 4 sirnicas will probably touch or almost touch each other. The foil strip helps them keep their shape. On top of each sirnica, with a clean pair of scissors I cut 3 "crosses," which have religious symbolism. It also helps to hold the sugar topping in place. When the oven is fully heated, put the uncovered sirnicas into the oven and look at the clock.
- In 20 minutes, you will remove them from the oven in order to coat them. First, remove the foil strips—their job is done.
- Now, using a pastry brush, brush on the egg mixture and crumble on the sugar topping. Again, note the exact time when you return them to the oven. Only 10 minutes more, then remove!
- Now place the remaining sirnicas into the oven with foil strips, like before. Be sure to keep the oven door closed during this "changing of the guard" time frame so the oven doesn't lose its temperature.
- Sirnica needs to be cooled down before eating; this makes them more flavorful.
Note: Technically speaking, sirnica should not be eaten until Easter! But that rule can be bent, especially with such wonderful smells coming out of the kitchen.
An Ancient Croatian Tradition
Since most Croats are Catholics, Lent is preceded by a wild and crazy "Maskarade" (Mardi Gras) celebration followed by 40 days of eating lightly and preparing for Easter. During this time, many people eat as many fresh greens as possible, which are plentiful in the early Spring months. For example, blitva, also known as Swiss chard, is full of iron and very good for getting back in shape after winter inactivity and Christmas overindulging.
In the video below, the priest will say a prayer that the food brought in the baskets will be healthful and life-supporting. Depending on where you live, many homemakers "show off" their freshly baked sirnicas. Others haven't had time to cook, so they bring the raw ingredients, like eggs and salt, tucked away in the basket for the priest's blessing.
No doubt about it, Easter Sunday is going to be a feast, usually with roasted herbal spring lamb and other wonderful fresh foods.
Holy Saturday: Blessing the Food
© 2011 Anastasia Kingsley