A Day in the Life: In Search of the Perfect Easter Bread
Novinite is publishing another article submitted by Mr Yoav Chudnoff, who has recently been diving into the mysteries of Bulgarian buns and Bulgarian Easter breads, known as "kozunak".
Yoav, now based in Sofia, is currently writing a Guide Book to Eastern Europe based on the migratory travels of a Bulgarian born Eastern Imperial Eagle (Царски Орел) written from the viewpoint of the Eagle covering, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Belarus, Romania, Poland, Russia, Latvia and Lithuania under the pen name Pesho the Imperial Eagle. The Guide Book will take people to out of the way places in Eastern Europe not normally written up in main stream guide books.
It is almost impossible to walk the streets in any city, town or village in Bulgaria and not see a small bakery offering a variety of bureks (баница - banitza), mini pizzas, rolls and my favourite: sweet chocolate or rose-hip marmalade filled buns (Кифли - kifli). In the major cities, one can find bakery chains which bake these delights on-site, but the "raw" product is usually brought in from an off-site location. They taste fine, but something seems to be missing. I have been pondering over this from time to time, never able to put my finger on it as to what is missing.
Several months ago, I had dinner with some friends and somehow the subject of freshly baked kifli came up. Honestly, I do not know of how the conversation came about, but it did. One off my friends mentioned that if I really wanted to taste, what he considered to be the "Gold Standard" of kifli in Sofia, I would have to go to one particular place. He was quite specific, walk on Blvd. Vasil Levski towards the National Palace of Culture (НДК), take a left on 6th September (the British Ambassador's residence will be on your left and the Downtown Hotel diagonally to your right), you cannot miss it. I was a little bit skeptical and weary of the recommendation. To explain, I was "skeptical" in the sense that when a friend offers you a taste of their best homemade brandy (ракия - rakia)... one must agree that their homemade rakia is indeed the best you have tasted. Even though it, well, you know what I mean to say.
Several days later, on my way to the office, I made the detour to find this wonder of wonders. I strolled down Blvd. Vasil Levski, turned left on 6th September and saw a nondescript building with a line of people patiently waiting in front of it, must be the place. I hopped in line and a few moments later, I ordered the rose-hip marmalade kifla from the fellow behind the window. The price was one leva., which is the going price for a kifla in Sofia. Big deal, I was still not sold on the 'wonder' kifla.
The kifla was still warm as it was just taken out of the oven before I arrived. Aah the aroma of freshly baked kifla. Smelled good, but it looked like any other kifla one finds. A kifla is a kifla in my book. I hesitated, swearing to myself, here goes another ‘rakia moment.’ But then I inspected it a little bit more closely: something about the feel seemed different, it was soft with a certain consistency unlike any other kifli that I’ve ever held in my hands before. My inner child started to come out... I couldn't wait to take my first bite. There was this wonderful aroma of the rose-hip marmalade reaching my nostrils. Was my nose playing tricks with me? My taste buds started to tingle, my mouth started to water; I senses began to ‘taste’ the kifla before I even took my first bite. Can it be that I have just discovered the "Holy Grail" of' kifli? I looked at the kifla, hesitated for just a moment and then took my first bite. But wait, I have to interject here: several years ago, I learned a valuable lesson from a chef friend of mine. When you taste something for the very first time, you shouldn't rush into it. One must take one's time and let your body's senses take over. Thus began the first bite: I let the piece of kifla stay in my mouth and let my senses take over. I began to chew very (I mean VERRRY) slowly allowing the kifla's flavours to come out on its own. As I continued chewing, the kifla just melted away in my mouth. I couldn't hold myself back any longer, I was in heaven, and the kifla was done for and devoured in a matter of a few minutes, so much for my friend's theory of food appreciation.
I eventually arrived at the office, satisfied knowing that a void has been filled. I told several colleagues of the find. Like me, they were skeptical. They wanted proof, not just my word. The following morning, I stopped by the bakery and ordered ten kifli, five rose-hip and five chocolate and brought them to the office. One by one, the kifli disappeared. I anxiously waited. A few moments later, my colleagues stopped by and one by one confirmed what I told them. They could not believe that such kifli can be found in Sofia. They were in awe and craving for more. They were asking: "Where is this place?" "What is their secret?" I was hooked, they were hooked. Over the next several months, as part of my morning ritual walking to work, I would stop by the bakery and order either a chocolate or rose-hip kifla. It filled a void, I was indeed hooked. I had to have my morning kifla, no other kifla will do, and it had to be that kifla.
As time went on, the fellow behind the window would see me and know what I was going to order. One question still lingered in the back of my mind: What was the secret behind this perfection? Dare I ask him? Will the fellow behind the window think that I am some crazy expat (some people may think that of me anyway) or maybe I am just joking around with him in order to make conversation? Here goes. I started to ask him as to what time does he starts working in the morning. “Between 03:00 & 03:30.” Mmm. "I was wondering, if I can stop by one morning and watch how you make kifli?" "If you want to come and watch, be my guest. Anytime you like." "I'll give you a heads up." "No problem." When I got home from work, I informed my wife and mother in law of my idea: “Go ahead, knock yourself out.”
From Kifli to Kozunak: the History of a Bakery
When would be the best time to go and learn the secret of the perfect kifla? The spring holidays were approaching: Passover and Easter. I can't during Passover, but wait; Easter is after Passover, that's it: Easter! Bulgarian Easter with its famous Easter bread: kozunak! That's it: kozunak! That has to be it! I've had kozunak in the past; it tastes like kifli with a few minor additions. I was psyched. The following morning, I went to the bakery, ordered my kifla and asked if I can stop by early Saturday morning and watch. Not a problem, come on over.
Thus the adventure began the day before Orthodox Easter at 03:30. I arrived at the bakery and was warmly welcomed in. We formally introduced each other: Ahmed, his wife, Jaylan and their friend, Nedret. Originally hailing from Kazanluk, they came to Sofia around 16 years ago with their two young daughters , 600 leva and an idea to open up a small bakery using Jaylan's grandmother's 'secret' recipes. After searching and finding the optimal place to open their dream bakery. They told their friends and family of their intentions and plans. They all chipped in and loaned Ahmed and Jaylan the money they needed in order for them in order to realize their dreams of opening a bakery that would offer the best of the best.
In the beginning, with many hits and misses, it was difficult. Making the dough was easy. But they wanted to find the right suppliers who will provide with them with high quality ingredients. They found the suppliers. When they opened, there was only one type of flour being offered on the market, Ahmed explained, this was not a problem as each recipe called for different ingredients based on the flour he purchased. They had get "a feel" of how their large oven works and adjusting the amounts of ingredients being used for each baked good they plan to offer. Sometimes, the initial batches were either under cooked (raw inside) or overcooked. Over time less mistakes were being made. Sometimes, they overestimated how much to bake, then they would underestimate how much to make. In all cases time and experience took hold. Anything left over at the end of day was given to the street cleaners working the neighborhood as well as to orphanages and the needy.
When they first opened their doors, their first clients tended to be pensioners from the neighborhood who would ‘test’ the goods. Ahmed said that they were the most discerning, if his goods didn't look right or taste right they would tell him straight away. It wasn't that there were problems with Jaylan's grandmother's homemade recipes, it was getting used to the oven and making some small adjustments to the large batches of dough being made. Again, over time this was perfected. The pensioners got to work, telling their neighbors and friends about the new family bakery in the neighborhood.
There I was 16 years later, sitting on a small stool out of their way, watching them in awe as they were working on the kozunak; first forming the dough balls, weighing them, adding raisins, dividing them, braiding them and forming them.
Here lies their secret: unlike other bakeries looking on ways to cut costs, Ahmed and Jaylan explain, they would only use specialized premixed flour that already contains 'all' the ingredients needed to bake kozunak or kifli (flour, sugar, powdered eggs and who knows what else) and then add water to the mix and bake. Ahmed and Jaylan refused to change their recipes. "How can you make kozunak without real eggs, they won't look or taste right .. if you don't knead the dough slowly and carefully and rush the preparation of dough, they won't be fluffy... if you don't sprinkle sugar on top of the kozunak before you put them in the oven, they won't caramelize correctly... if you let it rise too much, it will collapse during baking... if the oven is too hot, the kozunak will be raw inside... if the kozunak does not tear when you break it open, there is something wrong, it is missing something." I began to what my friend told me and why so many people come here. This was their secret. Do not change anything, keep the recipe and continue to offer their clients the best without skimping on the ingredients.
It was already 07:30 in the morning, my mouth watering, the bakery filled with smell of freshly baked pastries and kozunak, my eyes slowly (and jealously) following each batch of kozunak being taken out of the oven and placed on display. People were starting to line up outside. It was time for me to leave my hosts so they can tend to their clients. I purchased my kozunak, excited with the prospect of sharing it with the family.
I had to ask one last important question: "Do you eat banitza, kozunak and kifli at home?" "Of course!"
I got home, went to bed. By the time I woke up, ready to partake in the kozunak. I went to the kitchen ... no kozunak, then the dining room … no kozunak … then the terrace, where my wife and mother-in-law were relaxing, they looked sternly at me … “there’s a problem with the kozunak …” (oh oh) “… the kozunak you brought home this morning was not only the best kozunak that we have ever had, we could not hold ourselves back and ate it all, you need to go back to the bakery and get a few more!” I did.
An afterward: I was just about to send my commentary to the Sofia News Agency office and received the following email from one of my colleagues at the office, and I quote: "I expect on Tuesday that you will bring Ahmed and Jaylan's kifli to the office... consider yourself be barred from the office if you do not! (:-)"
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