A layered Christmas bread with the most unbelievable texture and flavour
Christmas traditions certainly vary across cultures, regions and families; some are embedded within religious traditions while others are developed through years of “that’s just the way we do things”. One tradition which our family shares with many other Orthodox families is the baking of the traditional christopsomo, which literally translates to Christ’s bread. This bread is typically baked on Christmas Eve and eaten on Christmas Day and is replete with symbolism and meaning.
There are probably as many versions of christopsomo as there are families who eat it. Some flavour their bread with nuts and dried fruit, others with spices and dried herbs. And, just as the flavours can vary, so too can the design. Traditionally, christopsomo is adorned with either a cross or the letter “X”, both meant to represent Christ. In fact, the “X” is not an “X” at all, but the Greek letter chi which in Greek is written as “X”. Another common design feature is the inclusion of a walnut into the center of the typically round loaf. Explanations given for the inclusion of the walnut vary, but it is often considered to symbolize life and fertility. Further, the shell of the walnut has been described as representing the womb of the Virgin Mary or the cave in which many Christians believe Christ was born.
In our family, christopsomo is prepared as a relatively plain bread; no nuts, no spices, no dried fruit. There are some unique features to the way in which the dough is prepared and the bread is assembled however, which make our christopsomo more than just a regular loaf. The inspiration for this technique and design came to our parents many years ago, while visiting family out of town. During that visit, they were served christopsomo prepared by another guest, who happened to be of Yugoslavian descent. Our parents were intrigued by her beautiful bread design, and the wonderful texture and flavour of her christopsomo. They therefore adapted their own recipe to replicate this bread and have since referred to it as “Yugoslavian christopsomo”. Whether or not similar bread is found throughout the countries which used to collectively be Yugoslavia, or whether this was the result of one woman playing with dough, is anybody’s guess. What is certain however is that this is a bread you will want to make over and over again.
Before you even begin to think about baking this christopsomo, read through the recipe carefully and calculate all the time that you will need. Much of this is not active time, but you do need to allow the dough to go through three rises.
We usually like to offer you measurements in a variety of ways, but when baking, it really is much easier if you have a kitchen scale. Particularly when baking breads, a kitchen scale helps you to carefully measure out your ingredients so that you end up with a successful dough. If you really don’t have access to a scale keep in mind that 1 cup of all-purpose flour equals about 148 grams.
Having said that, baking is in large part an art which takes practice and patience. It is not really possible for us to give you an exact measurement for the flour that you will use. A lot depends upon the quality and type of flour, the humidity in your home, the altitude level…and a lot of other crazy stuff. This is why our ingredient list suggests that you start with 800 grams of flour, and have an additional 225 grams available. You will almost certainly need to use some of that extra flour, but how much will depend on how your dough is looking and feeling as you knead it. It is very unlikely that you will need the entire additional amount of 225 grams.
You will note as you read through the recipe that you will need olive oil spread for this christospomo. We find this in our grocery store, usually where we find butter and margarine. If you can’t find olive oil spread you can use margarine or butter.
Although there is no obvious cross or “X” adorning the top of this bread, the symbolism is still there. While preparing your loaf for baking, a cross is cut into the dough, discretely embedding the sign of the cross. We have included several photos to illustrate exactly how to make the pretty design; we hope these are helpful because describing the steps in words was a little challenging (but hopefully not confusing!)
Christopsomo is always baked in a round baking pan. We used a pan which was 13 inches in diameter.
Unlike cakes where you can stick a toothpick in the center to see if they are cooked, bread relies on other tactics. The best ways that we know to check if your loaf is done is to test and see if they easily detach from the pan (they should), and, if after removing the bread from the pan it sounds hollow when you tap it on the bottom. If either of those things don’t happen, your bread needs more time in the oven. If you are concerned because the top has already reached a nice brown colour, simply cover it loosely with aluminum foil to prevent it from getting too dark.
The recipe which follows will give you 2 christopsoma. If you do not want to make two loaves of Christmas bread you can freeze half the dough after its second rising and use it to make a plain loaf of bread at a later date.
Mia Kouppa: Christopsomo
- 800 grams of all-purpose flour + an additional 225 grams of all-purpose flour
- 40 ml of vegetable oil
- 1,170 ml of warm water
- 1/4 teaspoon sugar
- 1 tablespoon active dry yeast
- 1/2 cup (125 ml) warm water
- 1/2 tablespoon vegetable oil
- vegetable oil for coating bottom of baking pan
- 1/4 cup (60 ml) melted olive oil spread
- 2 whole walnuts
- 2 tablespoons sesame seeds
- 2 egg yolks
- 1 tablespoon water
- You will also need toothpicks
- Prepare your dough by sifting 800 grams of all purpose flour into a large mixing bowl.
- In a small bowl or mug, combine 1/2 cup of warm water, the sugar, and the active dry yeast. Stir well and allow to sit for approximately 3 – 5 minutes. You should see some bubbling on the surface, which indicates that your yeast is working.
- Pour this yeast mixture into the large bowl which contains your flour, and add the additional 1,170 ml of warm water and 40 ml of vegetable oil. Mix well with your hands and begin to knead your dough. You may find that you need to add additional flour; add 1/4 cup flour at a time (sifted before you add it to your dough) until you have a dough which is soft and not sticking onto your hands (we added a total of about 1 1/4 cups or 185 grams more flour at this point). You should end up with a dough which is soft, not too stiff and not sticking to your hands. You can see video here of dough consistency.
- Form the dough into a ball in your bowl and lift one side of it so that you can add 1/2 tablespoon of vegetable oil to the bottom of the bowl. Cover your dough with a clean kitchen towel and let rise for at least 2 – 3 hours in a warm, draft free place.
- After this first rising you should notice that your dough has almost doubled in size. Begin to knead the dough again for an additional 5 minutes or so. Reshape into a ball and cover once again with your clean kitchen towel. Allow the dough to rise for another 2 hours, or until doubled in size.
- Now it is time to shape your christopsomo. Note that this amount of dough will make two loaves of christopsomo. If you will be making two loaves, place some vegetable oil on the bottom of your round baking pans (we used 13 inch diameter pans) and set aside.
- Divide your dough into equal halves. Put aside one of the halves, and continue the following steps with one of the halves. (Note: if you only want to make one christopsomo, use half your dough and freeze the rest to make a plain loaf of bread at a later date.)
- Divide the dough into 4 equal parts. Take one of the pieces and roll it out to about one inch thickness and a diameter which is the size of your pan. Place the dough into your baking pan and brush the top with the melted olive oil spread. Repeat this process two more times, so that you end up having 3 layers of dough with olive oil spread brushed on top of each layer, including the top on.
- Using a sharp knife, make a large cross in the dough, cutting through all 3 layers of dough, but beginning approximately one inch from the edges (see photos above).
- Beginning at the center of the cross, begin to pull back the layers of dough, one at a time, securing the folded back pieces with toothpicks. Each layer will have 4 points pulled back, and this will be done with all 3 layers (see photos above). You will end up with an empty space at the bottom of your pan, right in the middle.
- Use your fourth piece of dough to roll it out into a long strip and roll it around itself to make a coil. Place this coil into the empty center area of your pan. Do not worry if you still have some areas of the bottom of your pan visible; as the dough rises again these empty spaces will be filled in. Using a pair of kitchen shears snip pieces of dough from the center coil to make points of dough. Place your walnut into the center of your coil. Brush the entire top of your dough with additional melted olive oil spread and sprinkle your christopsomo with sesame seeds. Cover with a clean cloth and set aside to rise for approximately 30 minutes.
- (Repeat with the rest of your dough if you will be baking 2 loaves of christopsomo).
- During this last rising, preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Bake your christopsomo in the middle rack of your oven for approximately 1 hour. While your bread is baking, mix your egg yolks with water and set aside. After the first 30 minutes, carefully remove from oven, and gently remove the toothpicks, brush the egg yolk on top of the bread and add more sesame seeds. Continue baking until the bread is cooked. You will know your christopsomo is ready when it is easily detached from the pan, and when it sounds hollow when you tap it on the bottom. If either of these conditions are not met after an hour of baking, give your loaf another 5 – 10 minutes in the oven. If your christopsomo is already browned on top and you are worried about it getting too dark, simply cover it loosely with aluminum foil.
- Remove from oven, and let cool. Flip pan over, to carefully remove the bread.
- Enjoy, and Merry Christmas to you and your families!