This recipe for kolac (pronounced KO-lach) is my most cherished recipe — in fact, I’d even say it’s one of my most cherished possessions, period.
This bread, which is sort of like a rich brioche — the word “kolach” actually translates as “cake,” although Americans would definitely consider it a bread — is a true family heirloom, and an important part of my cultural heritage as well. Kolac is a special bread prepared only for certain special ocassions: Christmas and Slava. Slava is a Serbian family holiday that commemorates the family’s saint. I’ve written more extensively about Serbian Slava here on my personal blog.
Serbian Christmas Kolach is usually called Božićni kolač. It’s pronounced BOH-zheech-nee KO-lach. In Cyrillic, it’s written as божићни колач.
My grandmother, born in 1888 in what was then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, made this bread. She taught me how to knead and shape the dough when I was a little girl. The recipe came from her mother, and her mother’s mother before her, and on through countless generations. Serbs pass down the recipe for their family’s Slavski Kolac (Slava bread or cake) — which is also their Bozicni Kolac (Christmas bread or cake) — matrilineally, in a beautifully balancing counterweight to the way the family’s patron saint is passed down patrilineally. The result is an interweaving of tradition that winds through the centuries and makes me feel more acutely my own connection to ancestors on both sides and all around.
For Christmas, the bread is elaborately decorated with ornaments made from dough pinched off from the main dough, and also special yolk dough that can be shaped more finely. Part of the dough is pinched off and formed into a vititsa — a braid — and a buzdovan — a mallet. The vititsa is for the girls of the household and the buzdovan is for the boys. The symbolism may be blunt, but the special breads are undoubtedly fun for children.
For Slava, the bread generally is not decorated, except for the gloss of egg white brushed on top just before baking.
I first published my family recipe for kolac in Isthmus, the weekly newspaper of Madison, Wisconsin, in December 1999. Here’s an excerpt from the article about Serbian Christmas traditions that ran with it. You can read the full article here
“The Bozicni Kolac (pronounced bo-zheech-nee KO-lach), or Christmas bread, is not like any other bread I’ve ever seen or eaten. It’s gloriously decorative: tall, cylindrical, and rounded on top, like a crown, and decked out on top with tiny sculptures made from dough. It’s firm, yellow, crumbly, and slightly sweet, with a thick, tasty crust. Even if you skip the dough sculptures, it’s a wonderful, rich bread.
“Traditionally, the Kolac (or Kolach) is baked on Christmas Eve (Badnje Vece, Badnje veče, or Бадње вече), which is a day of fasting from animal products. Because the Kolac is made with eggs and milk, it can’t be eaten on that day. I part from tradition by waiting until January 7 — Christmas Day (Bozic Bozich, Božić or Божић) — to bake it. Because it tastes best on the day it’s baked.
“My mother cut the bread in wedges, but my husband and I like to slice off rounds from the bottom instead. That way, the dough decorations are preserved for as long as possible.
“Every family’s Kolac is decorated a little differently. My mother and grandmother made wine barrels and bunches of grapes, representing the old family vineyard. Following this custom, I fashion four barrels from bread dough, and stick on hoops and nails made from the special sculpting dough (see recipe below). My own additions include a computer, a silhouette of a ferret (we have three), and a frying pan.
“Customarily, there’s an emblem in the center, engraved with letters written in Old Church Slavonic, the language customarily used in the Eastern Orthodox liturgy among Slavic peoples. It’s made by pressing a carved wooden stamp into a square of sculpting dough. Fashion a central emblem that’s of special significance to you, spiritual or otherwise.”
This kolač is tall and round, to resemble a crown. Before you even begin, choose your baking pan. Traditionally, people used a tall wooden mold like a springform pan. Over the years, I’ve used aluminum saucepans, iron pots, and crockery pots. If you don’t have a suitable pan, you might want to scout out a lightweight aluminum pot secondhand. The ideal dimensions are If you use a saucepan, be sure its handle is ovenproof. A regular cake pan won’t do at all; it’s not tall enough.
On a platter, arrange nuts in a ring around the bread. (Some people balance the bread on three red apples, and cover the platter straw, hay, and dried grains; some surround the bread with fruits instead of nuts.) Lay the basil, tied in the ribbon, on top.
8 cups flour
4 tsp. yeast
2 cups milk
4 yolks (reserve the whites)
4 tbs. sugar
1 stick butter, at room temperature
butter for pans
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 to 1 cup dough, pinched off from bread
2 tbs. flour
A little milk
Egg whites (left over from bread), beaten slightly
Sprig of fresh basil
Red ribbon or thread
Assorted nuts in the shell
Equipment that bears mentioning
To get the right shape, bake this bread in a one-gallon saucepan or pot that’s narrow, round, and straight-sided, with ovenproof handles. The best utensil I’ve found is a stoneware crock liner from an electric slow cooker.
In a nutshell
Combine yeast, sugar and milk. Add butter, yolks and salt. Work in flour. Adjust flour and milk until you have a soft dough. Knead. Let rise. Mix yolk and flour and shape into decorations (Christmas only), dipping in egg white if it seems they might dry out. Put three-quarters of dough in well-buttered pot or crock liner. (For Slava, put all dough in pot; no decorations, braid or mallet.) Decorate (Christmas only) and let rise. Shape remaining dough into small decorations for the top, and a separately baked braid and a mallet studded with almonds for spikes. Bake at 400º F for 10 minutes and then 350º F, covered loosely with foil, for 50 minutes or until done. The braid and mallet don’t need the initial 400º F heat blast, and will be done after only 15 to 25 minutes.
Warm the milk to 105º F or until it feels warm, but not hot. If it’s too hot, it’ll kill the yeast, and your Kolac won’t rise.
Dissolve the yeast into a small amount of the milk, then gradually stir in the rest of the milk and the sugar. Let stand 10 minutes.
Mix in the remaining ingredients and knead well, to make a fairly stiff, stretchy dough that pulls clean from your fingers. If it’s too stiff, add milk as needed. Put in a greased bowl. Spray with vegetable oil. Cover. Set to rise in a warm place, at least one hour. Test by pressing the center lightly: if it springs back, it has more rising to do. Punch down and knead just enough to work out any big creases. Pinch off about a quater of of dough and set aside for decorations, braid and mallet (Christmas only; no decorations or extras for Slava). Butter the baking pot well, put the dough inside, and let rise again. Meanwhile, make the dough sculptures and decorate the bread with them.
Christmas only: Make a braid, a mallet and the decorations. Pinch off a little of the dough you’ve removed from the main dough for decorations for atop the kolac and reserve. Divide the remaining removed dough (if that makes sense!) in half. Shape half into a braid and half into a mallet. Stud the mallet head with slivered almonds to resemble spikes. Ouch. Place these on a buttered baking sheet and let rise until doubled, or the dough doesn’t spring back when you press it with your finger. Brush with egg white — this will make a lovely gloss. Bake at 350º F for 15 to 25 minutes, until golden brown and they make a hollow sound when you lightly thump the bottom.
In a small bowl, mix together the flour, yolk, and enough milk to make a dense, pliable lump of sculpting dough. This dough won’t rise while baking, so it’ll retain any shapes you mold it into, or carve into it.
Pinch off some sculpting dough and roll two long cylinders thinner than a drinking straw. With a rolling pin, flatten them into ribbons. Make them two inches longer than the Kolac is wide. Dip them in egg white and arrange in a cross over the top, forming four quadrants.
Roll a third cylinder, this one about two-thirds the length needed to encircle the bread. Flatten it, rolling out to the right length. Dip in egg white and rope it around the bread.
For an alternative to a plain band that encircles the bread, try my grandmother’s specialty: an elegant fringe. Roll the band to 1″ wide. Use a paring knife to cut fringes 3/4″ long and about 1/4″ wide. Dip in egg white and place on bread. With the tip of a paring knife, bend back every other fringe 180º, flat against the bread.
Use the reserved bread dough and the rest of your sculpting dough to make shapes that represent things meaningful to each member of your household. Keep in mind these properties as you form your sculptures: the bread dough will rise; the sculpting dough will keep whatever shape you give it. Think of it as a mixed media project. Tip: bread dough barrels are fun to eat!
Dip your sculpting dough objects in egg white before placing on bread. The egg white will glue them in place, and will be glossy when baked. But don’t dip your bread dough objects in egg white: they’ll slip off the bread.
When you’re done, brush top lightly with egg white — sculptures and all. Bake at 400º for 10 minutes, then cover loosely with a sheet of foil folded into an inverted V. Turn down heat to 350º and bake 60 to 80 minutes more. Bread is done when a light thump produces a hollow sound. Let partly cool, then carefully turn it out into a dishcloth.