The Perfect Loaf is a column from software engineer turned bread expert (and Food52's Resident Bread Baker), Maurizio Leo. Maurizio is here to show us all things naturally leavened, enriched, yeast-risen, you name it—basically, anything you can slather a lot of butter on. Today, he tells us about naturally leavened mazanec, a Czech sweet bread.
Many years ago I had the pleasure of traveling through Europe for work, with a multiweek stop in the Czech Republic. My hosts, knowing my appreciation for good food, took me to restaurants that catered to the locals and that were so small it felt like we were eating in their cousin's kitchen. In these quaint eateries, I had some of the tastiest food of my entire trip. The highlight was probably eating a whole pork knuckle, but I also ordered plenty of dumplings and many a light beer. As I was traveling during the dead of winter, many spring and summer Czech specialties eluded me, including the Eastertime sweet bread called mazanec. This treat is not widely known here in the U.S., so I figured what better way to remember my trip through the beautiful Czech Republic than to fill the mazanec void and make it in my home kitchen—using my sourdough starter, of course.
Mazanec is a traditional Czech sweetened bread made around Easter. The dough gets enriched with egg, milk, and butter, and it's traditionally filled with lemon zest, rum-soaked raisins, and sometimes other dried fruit (though untraditional, I think dried apricots or even cherries would be delicious, too). The whole thing gets topped off with sliced or slivered almonds and, occasionally, a dusting of confectioners' sugar. If not completely covered with confectioners' sugar, you'll typically see it with a small cross on top representing the time of the year. Cultures around the world have their Easter-specific sweets, from the hot cross bun to colomba pasquale, each an enriched bread of some kind with added fruit and as many flourishes as can reasonably fit. They are each meant to commemorate a time of joyous celebration for many. For me, a fanatical baker, having a delicious baked treat is most assuredly the best way to celebrate.
Is mazanec a bread or cake?
The debate between whether something is cake or bread can get heated. While an ornately decorated mazanec can have the appearance of a single-layer cake, for me, it falls in the bread camp thanks to its typical use of instant yeast for leavening. There are always exceptions, of course, as there are some cakes made with yeast, such as the famous German beesting cake. I still tend to see cakes as those baked goods that rely on chemical leaveners, such as baking powder or baking soda. As it's made with natural yeast from sourdough, mazanec requires the better part of a day to ferment enough to give the best flavor, texture, and sufficient rise in the oven. Another apt example of this debate is the Italian panettone, made with yeast: While it sure eats like a cake, it's most assuredly not.
What flour should I use to make this mazanec?
For most breads, cookies, cakes, pies, and other pastry, I always turn to a low-protein flour such as all-purpose flour, versus a high-protein flour like bread flour. Why? I find the lower protein content makes for bread that's less gummy, chewy, and overall contributes to a better texture. However, with enriched doughs like this mazanec, using higher protein flour can actually benefit the texture and structure.
When working in high percentages of egg, butter, and sugar, the increased protein content of the flour will lead to bread with greater volume and a lighter texture. Because egg (fat) and butter (fat) both hinder gluten formation in some way, they help keep the bread's texture supple and "shreddy." In a way, these enrichments help prevent that gummy texture I often find with too much high-protein flour.
Can I use whole-wheat flour?
I'm an avid freshly milled flour and whole-grain baker, but with sweets like this, and especially when using natural fermentation, adding whole grains will almost certainly bring about more sourness than desired. Through a complex process, increased whole grains help spur lactic acid bacteria activity, pushing them to produce more organic acids as a by-product of fermentation. While these acids bring significant flavor, with a delicate and sweet bread such as mazanec, it doesn't contribute in a meaningful way.
Is there such a thing as too much butter? (Yes.)
Usually, when I start working on a recipe I keep enrichments (butter, sugar, egg) at the lower end and work my way up through subsequent tests until the flavor and texture are right where they should be. For this mazanec recipe, I started the butter at 30 percent butter to total flour weight to bring ample richness and softness to the bread, but after tasting the result, I couldn't have been more wrong.
In baking the first few trials, the overall flavor was good, but the bread was almost too rich, too soft, and a little too overpowering. I realized that this bread isn't about loading it with copious amounts of butter, à la brioche; it's more subtle, and the beauty of this bread is the delicate interplay between all of the ingredients, rather than having one overpower all the others.
For my third trial, I dropped the butter dramatically down to 20 percent of the total flour weight (here that means I went from over one stick of butter down to about one-third of a stick). When I pulled that mazanec from the oven, I knew I was on to something. The bread was soft, supple, and had a beautiful buttery aroma, yet tasted lighter and less overpowering than prior tests. Finding the right level of butter meant bringing this delicate bread into greater balance, allowing the lemon, rum, raisins, and almonds to have their place in the spotlight, too.
Should I top it with confectioners' sugar?
In my sourdough version of this bread I would highly recommend using confectioners' sugar as the final topping. Why? I keep the sugar percentage in the dough relatively low: 8 percent sugar to total flour weight, to be exact. I keep the sugar low because it interferes with natural leavening, and compared to extremely powerful instant yeast found in many enriched bread recipes, sourdough recipes with high sugar content require extremely long fermentation times. To keep this recipe on a shorter timeline, I keep the sugar low, knowing the mazanec will have a final dusting of at the end. The confectioners' sugar on top adds just enough sweetness to complement the sugar in the dough, making the entire thing just sweet enough that you'll be eager to go back for slice after slice.
Recipe: Sourdough Mazanec
- 51 grams bread flour
- 51 grams water
- 20 grams ripe sourdough starter
- 10 grams superfine or granulated sugar
- 65 grams raisins
- 1/4 cup dark rum, plus more as needed
- 79 grams unsalted butter
- 343 grams bread flour, plus more as needed
- 165 grams whole milk, divided
- 2 large eggs
- 21 grams superfine or granulated sugar
- 8 grams fine sea salt
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/4 teaspoon almond extract (optional)
- 1 tablespoon lemon zest (from about 1/2 large lemon)
- Sliced almonds, for topping (optional)
- Confectioners' sugar, for topping (optional)
- Make the levain and soak the raisins (night before at 9:00 p.m.)
In the evening, when your sourdough starter is ripe (when you'd typically give it a refreshment), make the levain. In a large jar, combine 51 grams bread flour, 51 grams water, 20 grams ripe sourdough starter, and 10 grams sugar. Cover the jar loosely and let the levain ripen overnight at warm room temperature (I keep mine around 74°F to 76°F/23°C to 24°C). In a small bowl, combine the raisins and rum (use enough rum so they're just covered). Cover the bowl.
- Mix the dough (9:00 a.m.)
In the morning, your starter should be bubbly on top and at the sides, have risen in the jar, have a sour aroma, and have a loose consistency. If it was cold in your kitchen overnight or it isn't displaying these signs, give it one more hour to rise and check again.
Cut 79 grams of butter into small pieces, place them on a plate, and set them aside to soften to room temperature. To the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment, add the 343 grams flour, 150 grams milk, 1 egg, 21 grams sugar, 8 grams salt, ½ teaspoon vanilla extract, ¼ teaspoon almond extract (if using), 1 tablespoon lemon zest, and the ripe levain. Set the mixer to low speed and mix until all the ingredients are combined and no dry bits of flour remain. Turn up the mixer to medium-low and mix for 3 to 5 minutes, until the dough starts to clump around the dough hook. This is a small amount of dough in the mixer, so if at any time the dough fails to effectively move around with the dough hook, you can switch to the paddle attachment. This is a moderately strong dough at this point, and should mostly pull away from the bottom of the mixing bowl.
Let the dough rest 10 minutes in the mixing bowl, uncovered.
The butter should be at room temperature by this time (meaning a finger should easily push into a piece with little resistance). If you used the paddle to mix, switch back to the dough hook, and with the mixer turned on to low speed, add the butter, one piece at a time, waiting to add the next until the previous is incorporated, 4 to 6 minutes total. Once all of the butter is added, turn the mixer up to medium-low and continue to mix until the dough smooths and once again begins clinging to the dough hook, 2 to 3 minutes. The dough will be cohesive, smooth, and elastic at the end of mixing.
Transfer the dough to another large container (or leave it in the mixing bowl) for bulk fermentation.
- Bulk ferment the dough (9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.)
Cover the dough with a reusable airtight cover and let it rise at warm room temperature (76°F/24°C) for a total of 4 hours. During this time, you'll give the dough one set of "stretches and folds" (see next instruction for explanation) to give it additional strength.
To stretch and fold: 1 hour after the start of bulk fermentation, drain the raisins of any excess rum (discard the rum), then spread one-quarter (16 to 20 grams) of the raisins over the dough, pressing them gently into the dough to ensure they stick. Wet your hands, grab the north side (the side farthest from you) of the dough, and stretch it up and over to the south side. Spread another 16 grams of raisins over the top, then stretch the south side up to the north. Then, perform two more folds, one from east to west and one from west to east, adding the remaining 16 grams of raisins to the top of the dough before each. Finally, let the dough rest, covered, for the remaining 3 hours of bulk fermentation.
- Shape the dough (1:30 p.m.)
Check your dough; after 4 hours, it should have risen about 30 percent in the bulk fermentation container, have a few scattered bubbles, be smoother with a slightly domed top, and be moderately light and fluffy to the touch. If the dough still looks sluggish or feels dense after 4 hours, give it another 30 minutes to rise in a warm spot, like your oven turned off with the light on inside (74 to 76°F/23 to 24°C).
Line the inside of an 8-inch round banneton or kitchen bowl with a clean kitchen towel and lightly dust with bread flour. Lightly flour the top of the dough and gently scrape it out to your work surface flour side down. Using a bench scraper and floured hand, flip the dough over and shape it into a very tight round by pushing and pulling the dough with the scraper against the work surface. Pushing and pulling will create tension on the top of the dough, creating a uniformly smooth surface.
Using your scraper, scoop up the dough, flip it over, and place it in the prepared banneton, seam side up. The seam on the bottom should be completely sealed. If it's not, pinch the bottom closed with your fingers. Cover the banneton with a large plastic bag (or another bowl cover) and seal.
- Proof the dough (1:45 p.m. to 4:45 p.m.)
Proof the dough at a warm temperature (74°F to 76°F/23°C to 24°C is ideal) for about 3 hours. If your kitchen is on the cool side, expect the dough to take longer to proof. Extend the proof time as necessary until the dough is puffy and a poke slowly springs back.
- Bake and finish (4:45 p.m.)
Heat the oven to 400°F (200°C) with a rack in the middle and a baking stone on top (if you don't have a baking stone, you can bake directly on a 13x18-inch half sheet pan). In a small bowl, whisk together the remaining egg and 15 grams milk for the egg wash.
Place a piece of parchment paper on top of a pizza peel or upside-down sheet pan. Tip the proofed dough out to the center of the parchment paper so the seam is facing down.
Lightly brush the entire surface of the dough with the egg wash. Using a razor blade, baker's lame, or sharp knife, make a cross shape with two shallow straight lines that intersect right at the top-center of the dough. Sprinkle on the sliced almonds (if using), slide the parchment paper onto the baking stone or sheet pan, and bake for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, rotate the parchment paper halfway and reduce the oven to 350°F (175°C). Bake the mazanec for another 25 to 30 minutes, until it's golden brown and the internal temperature is around 200°F (93°C). Remove from the oven and let cool completely on a wire rack.
If desired, fill a fine-meshed strainer with confectioners' sugar and liberally dust the top of the mazanec. This is best the day it's baked, but can be stored on the counter for 3 days, covered.