A traditional Romanian Cozonac filled with lots of walnuts and chocolate. This cozonac tastes like a sweet milk brioche and is best served with warm milk. Typically made on Christmas and Easter, his recipe for 'Cozonac cu nuca' has been passed down in my family through generations.
What is Romanian 'Cozonac'?
Cozonac is probably Romania's most beloved dessert. Simple and delicious, the festive dessert is traditionally baked on Christmas and Easter and made to share with the family. Romanians love their tear and share desserts, and Cozonac is exactly that.
Although Cozonac is a recipe that's authentically Romanian, this dessert has found its way into other cultures where it's equally as cherished. Our neighbours, Bulgarians call it kozunak, Armenians have the choereg, Greeks call it tsoureki, Israeli cuisine has the wonderful challah and the French have fashioned it as brioche.
Made from a citrus-infused sweet milk dough, the Cozonac is filled with a decadent chocolate and walnut spread. The traditional braid makes the Cozonac an absolute joy to cut into, revealing luscious intertwined layers of goodness.
My grandmother taught me how to make this recipe, and I have enjoyed this amazing treat every single Christmas day. To me Cozonac is the real taste of celebration and festivity. Reminiscent of my childhood awaiting Santa Claus with a plateful of Cozonac slices and a side of hot milk, this treat is and will always be one of my absolute favourites.
How to make Romanian Cozonac
Romanian Cozonac consists of two parts: the milk dough and the filling. The yeasted dough is crucial, as it's the base for our brioche. The dough needs to be fragrant and incredibly fluffy to get the full experience of Cozonac.
The filling gives the Romanian Cozonac its authentic taste and it needs to be nutty and rich in chocolate. My two favourite fillings are walnut and chocolate or homemade hazelnut spread (aka Nutella).
The flour - this is a very important choice, as it can make or break your Cozonac. In Romania you can buy flour made specifically for Cozonac, but anywhere else you can get Type 000 white cake flour. This means that the flour is extra fine, and will result in a supple and fluffy dough.
The yeast - fresh yeast is the best choice for this recipe, as it tends to be more reliable. I store mine in the fridge for up to 2 weeks or in the freezer for 2 months. Make sure to leave the yeast at room temperature for a few hours before starting on this recipe for the optimal activation.
Instant or fast action dry yeast can also be used, and the ratio is usually around 1:3 - you need 15g of dry yeast for 50g of fresh yeast.
The filling - Traditionally, Romanian Cozonac is filled with nuts, chocolate and Turkish delight. I personally don't like Turkish delight in my Cozonac, but please do feel free to add it if you enjoy it. For the nutty part you can choose to go for hazelnuts or, more traditionally - walnuts. Make sure they are quite fresh and chop them finely beforehand.
For the hazelnut option, I like to make homemade hazelnut spread (aka Nutella), using roasted hazelnuts, milk powder, sugar/honey and dark cocoa powder.
How to make 'Cozonac cu nuca'
The first step of the process is preparing you yeasted dough 'starter'. This is a quick way of ensuring your milk dough will prove properly and give a beautiful rise to the Cozonac.
Fresh yeast works well as it tends to make the growth much faster, as well as being more reliable than instant or dry yeast. To start the process, we need to add 50g fresh yeast into a bowl, onto which we sprinkle 2 teaspoon of sugar. Using a fork, crush the pieced of yeast into the sugar, then add 100ml of warm milk. I usually just pop the milk in the microwave for a 30 seconds or so, giving a perfect temperature to aid the activation of your yeast. After you mix the yeast with the milk, add in about 50g of the flour and make sure to incorporate it well. Set aside for 10-15 minutes until the mixture doubles or even triples in size.
The milk dough begins by mixing the eggs, salt, sugar and vanilla with a hand mixer (or in a stand mixer bowl). Once the mixture becomes paler in colour and fluffier, we can add in the dough starter, the lemon and orange zest and mix to incorporate well. The zest is really important as it gives the dough a lovely fresh citrusy smell. Add in 300ml of warm milk and mix well to create a liquid consistency.
Now we need to add the flour in two stages, half each time. By incorporating the flour in twice, we avoid lumps and get a much smoother, supple dough. This can be done by hand or using a stand mixer with a paddle attachment. Only add in the second half of the flour once the previous one has been fully absorbed into the liquid. We don't need to over mix, just make sure the dough is consistent and incorporated properly.
The next stage is what gives Cozonac its stringy and extremely fluffy structure - melted butter and oil. This dough is quite generous in fat, which is what makes it so extremely tasty. The melted butter should be unsalted and melted to a low temperature, in the microwave in a few bursts of 20-30 seconds. Please make sure the butter isn't too hot, as it can affect the proving process. The vegetable oil can be any type, although I'd recommend avoiding anything with fragrance or strong taste (i.e. olive oil). A standard sunflower oil will work perfectly.
The oil and butter need to be incorporated in 2 or 3 stages, each time ensuring the previous stage has been soaked up before adding in more. The key is to use your hands to execute the folding motions, in order to avoid ripping the dough. A stand mixer can work equally as well, although I find it a bit harder to control.
In order to fold the fats into the dough, grease your hands well and scoop them under the sides of your dough. In a gentle motion, pull the dough from the edges into the centre. Repeat the motions until the dough becomes silky smooth and elastic.
Once all the fat has been incorporated, cover the bowl with clingfilm and a kitchen towel and place in a warm place to prove for 30-45 minutes until in doubles in size.
Preparing the filling
In this recipe I chose to prepare the filling in a traditional way, how my grandma makes it. To do this, you need a few simple ingredients: egg whites, salt, sugar, cocoa powder and walnuts.
The egg whited need to be whipped with a bit of salt until they become foamy. Start adding the sugar in 3-4 stages and mix until you get medium-hard peaks. Add in the cocoa powder and incorporate. Finally, using a spatula fold in the chopped walnuts.
If you're a little pressed for time, any store-bought hazelnut spread will work wonders too. Why not try making your own though?
Final stage: assembling
Once the dough has proved and doubled in size, we're ready to assemble the Cozonac. Start by properly greasing your work surface and hands, as the dough is still quite sticky. Divide the dough into 4 equal parts (as we're making 2 loaves), then using your hands stretch out the dough into a sheet of approximately 35 x 20cm.
Add in the chocolate walnut filling using a spatula in a thin layer. Leave a 5cm strip on one end (along the length), as we will use this to seal the edges. Using your hands, gently pull the sheet into a roll. Repeat the same process with the second roll.
With the two rolls, place them in a cross shape, one roll on top of the other. Starting from the middle out, overlap the rolls to create a braid. We don't want the braid to be too tight, so 3 rolls on each side will be enough.
Prepare a rectangular bread tin by greasing it well. I like to use lard to grease, as it makes the outer layer of the cozonac extra fluffy, but butter works just as well. Scoop up the braided brioche with your hands and quickly place it into your tin. We need to let this prove for around 30 minutes in a warm place.
Baking the Cozonac
The hard part is over, now we're getting closer to the delicious end result! Once your Cozonac has doubled in size (mine became absolutely huge - see above), we're ready to bake it.
Pre-heat your oven to 180 Celsius (360 Fahrenheit) fan-assisted. A few seconds before putting in the Cozonac to bake, whip up a quick egg wash and brush it over the top using a pastry brush. This will give the brioche a wonderful shine.
Place your Cozonac to bake for 20 minutes initially. After this time, the dough will start browning, so we need to cover it with some baking paper. To stop it from moving around too much, I use some toothpicks or skewers. After covering it, we need to reduce the heat to 170 C (340 F) and bake for another 25 minutes.
Once the baking is complete, remove from the oven and let cool in the tray for 5 minutes. After this time, we need to remove the Cozonac from the tray to prevent it getting soggy from condensation. Place the brioche on a cooling rack on its side, and flip it over every 10 minutes to prevent it getting squashed. Do this 2-3 times on each side.
We need to let the Cozonac cool completely before cutting into it, as it's still very fragile whilst hot. If you don't plan on consuming it immediately, wrap in cling film and store at room temperature to keep fresh. The Cozonac will be ideal to consume for 2 days, after which it will become quite crumbly (still good with milk though).
I would advise against storing it in the fridge, as this makes it hard and crumbly. Freezing it is not a good solution as it gives it a crumbly consistency.
I doubt, however, that this Cozonac will last longer than a few hours on your table. Get the family, prepare some hot milk for dunking and get sharing. Nothing compares to this decadent Romanian Cozonac cu nuca, either as a celebration treat or a quick and delicious snack.
Enjoy, or as we say in Romanian - poftă bună!
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Romanian Cozonac (Cozonac cu nuca)
- 2 x brioche trays 30 x 8 cm (12 x 3 inches)
- 50 g fresh yeast* (⅓ cup)
- 15 g sugar (1 tbsp)
- 1 kg cake flour (Type 000)* (8 cups)
- 3 eggs, large
- 3 egg yolks, large
- 500 g milk, warm (2 cups)
- 5 g salt (1 tsp)
- 200 g vegetable oil* (1 cup)
- 1 teaspoon lemon zest
- 1 teaspoon orange zest
Chocolate walnut filling
- 3 egg whites, large
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 300 g sugar (1 ½ cup)
- 50 g cocoa powder (½ cup)
- 400 g walnuts, chopped (2 ½ cups)
- 1 teaspoon rum extract*
- 2 teaspoon orange zest
Extra (for brushing)
- 2 eggs
- 20 g milk (4 tsp)
- First we need to prepare the yeasted dough 'starter'. In a small bowl add the fresh yeast and 1 tablespoon of sugar. Mix with a fork. Add in the warm milk and mix well. Set aside and let rest for 10-15 minutes.
- In a large bowl add the flour, the yeast starter and the milk. Mix to combine loosely with wooden spoon or spatula. (Note: this can also be done in a stand mixer).
- Add the eggs and zest combining in a few stages. The zest will give a wonderful fragrance to your brioche. At this stage, if the dough seems too liquid, add a little more flour - see notes.
- Once incorporated, add in the vegetable oil. Using your well-greased hands, fold over the dough in order to incorporate the fats. This should be done in two stages, only mixing in the second half once the dough has completely absorbed the oil/butter mixture. In order to fold, gently reach under your dough and pull it over, folding it onto itself. Be careful not to rip the dough, and do slow, steady movements.
- Once the fats have been incorporated, cover with cling film and a kitchen towel and place in a warm place to prove. Let prove for 1-2 hours or until it doubles in size.
Chocolate Walnut Filling
- In a large bowl, whip your egg whites with the salt until they become frothy.
- Add in the sugar in stages whipping well, making sure it dissolves into the egg whites. Mix until you reach medium-firm peaks. Add the cocoa powder and mix until fully incorporated.
- Chop the walnuts in a blender or food processor before adding to the mix. Add the chopped walnuts in two stages, mixing with a spatula to gently fold them into the mixture.
Assembling the Cozonac
- Grease your work surface with plenty of vegetable oil. By now your dough should have doubled in size. Gently fold in the dough to deflate a bit of air.
- Using a knife or scraper, divide the dough into 4 equal parts.
- Roll out each piece until you get a fluffy sheet of about 30 x 20cm (12 x 8 inches).
- Using a spatula, cover the dough sheet with your filling, leaving a 5cm edge on one side.
- Start rolling out the dough into a roulade, with the 5cm gap at the end, to help seal the edges.
- To make the final shape of the cozonac, braid two rolls together starting in the middle. Simply overlap sides until you get the desired braid. We don't want the brioche to be too tight, so 2-3 turns on each side should be more than enough.
- Scoop up your dough and place in a well greased brioche tray.
- Set aside and let prove for 30 minutes in a warm place.
Baking the Cozonac
- Pre-heat oven to 180°C (360°F) fan assisted.
- With a fork, quickly whip up the egg yolks with a dash of milk. Using a pastry brush, cover the brioche with the egg wash. This will give a lovely shine to your cozonac.
- Bake for 20 minutes, then cover with some baking paper to prevent the top from burning. Fix the baking paper with some toothpicks to prevent it from moving due to the fan.
- Bake for a further 25 minutes until done. Depending on your oven, you might need more or less time - please check with a skewer to see if they're done.
- Leave the Cozonac in the tray for 5 minutes, then remove and place on a cooling rack on their side. Be sure to turn them every 10 minutes, so they don't lose shape.
- Once cooled, you can cut and serve with a cup of warm milk!
- I recommend using a kitchen scale in grams for more accuracy. The cups used for the conversion are standard US customary cups (1 cup flour = 136g). There are many different types of cups across the globe, which is why I strongly recommend using grams instead.
- Yeast: Fresh yeast can be replaced with instant dry yeast (50g fresh = 15g dry).
- Flour type: this recipes uses cake flour, also known as type 000 flour (extra fine). This flour can be replaced with plain white flour, however you might need to add 50-100g more than the quantity indicated in the recipe.
- Vegetable oil: use non-flavoured oil, such as sunflower or canola (rapeseed) oil.
- Rum extract: although optional, rum extract adds a wonderful flavour. If you cannot find it, add 1-2 teaspoon of real rum instead.
- Storing: The best way is to wrap it in cling film and store for up to 2 days at room temperature. I will be surprised if they last that long anyway! I wouldn't recommend freezing or keeping in the fridge, as it tends to make the cozonac crumbly.