Mazanec, sweet Czech Easter bread

The way Easter is traditionally celebrated in the Czech Republic frequently shocks feminists from foreign countries.

This is how it goes: guys go out and cut young, soft branches from willow trees and braid them into a kind of whip, decorating the top with colorful ribbons. Then they take a basket and go around the village (or neighborhood), visiting every house with female residents. They chase the girls with the whip (getting beaten with young willow sprigs will supposedly help to keep you young and fresh), until the girls give them a decorated egg.

These days, the whole thing is largely symbolic, most guys don’t dare to touch anyone, but there’s always a lot of running and screaming and laughing.
Last Easter we were visiting my sister and my son got to join the guys on their walk around the village. Needless to say, he enjoyed himself immensely. This year we decided not to travel, so our Easter will consist of a peaceful brunch with my in-laws. Kind of miss the excitement… Also: not sure it’s worth decorating eggs if there’s no chance of getting beaten if I don’t.

I did bake the traditional Czech Easter bread though, using my grandmother’s recipe. She used to make two every Easter: one for us and one for my uncle’s family. I hope she would be proud, someone’s continuing the tradition. If I remember correctly, she used vanilla in the dough, but mace is also traditional and I am somewhat fascinated by this spice. Use whichever appeals more to you.

This is a rich, rich bread, studded with raisins and almonds. No need to smear butter on it, it is delicious by itself. Or maybe just a little raspberry preserve…

Mazanec, Czech Easter bread
Adapted from Marie Sandtnerova: Kniha rozpoctu

500 g unbleached flour
80 g sugar
½ tsp salt
pinch of mace (or 1 tsp vanilla extract)
250 ml milk, lukewarm
2 tsp dried yeast
120 g butter
3 egg yolks
60 g blanched almonds, roughly chopped
80 g raisins

In a large bowl, mix flour with salt and sugar. Make a well in the center and pour in half the milk. Add yeast and mix in a little of the flour mixture to make a sponge. Cut butter in slices and place them on top of the flour. Cover the bowl and let rise for about 20 minutes, or until the sponge starts to bubble. Mix egg yolks with the rest of the milk and add to the dough. Mix everything with a wooden spoon, then add raisins and almonds. Transfer to a large floured surface and mix with your hands until the dough becomes shiny and smooth. Return to the bowl, cover and let rise until it almost doubles in size, at least 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius (360 degrees Fahrenheit) Form a round loaf and place it on a baking sheet covered with parchment. Cover with the large bowl (inverted) and let rise for about 1 hour more. Take off the bowl, score the bread with a cross and glaze with an egg white.

Bake for about 40 to 45 minutes, or until golden brown. Keep your eye on the bread as sweet breads burn rather easily. Let cool on a wire rack. Dust with confectioners sugar before serving.

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