A beautiful, rose-shaped loaf of mildly sweet yeast bread with ribbons of cinnamon, lightly dusted with powdered sugar.
Bread. This is a main staple for all Russians and is found in virtually every single meal. To Russians, bread is a symbol of hospitality which stems from their ancient tradition of welcoming their guests with a loaf of bread. Because meals revolve so much around bread, the lack of it often marks times of starvation.
This bread – also known as a Russian Braid, Caucasian Bread or Cinnamon Wreath – originated in Russia like many other braided breads. This rich, yeast-based bread that can be created with savory or sweet fillings, the most popular being cinnamon sugar or pesto and pine nuts. Before the bread is left to rise, it is rolled, cut, and shaped in an intricate-looking wreath giving it its beautiful appearance. Russians usually serve breads like this to visitors or on special occasions with a cup of unsweetened tea. When made with cinnamon, this bread is almost a loaf version of cinnamon rolls.
This recipe is incredibly straight forward. The only two places I can see complications arising in would be the yeast part and forming the braided loaf.
Many people are intimidated when it comes to making yeast breads. The trick is to make sure the yeast is alive and activated before mixing it with the rest of the ingredients. The water must be warm enough to activate the yeast but cannot be too hot or the heat will kill it. The sweet spot is usually around 110-115 degrees F. Think of warm bath water for a toddler. I also add a little sugar to the water to give the yeast something to feed on. Once the yeast water mixture is left for 5 minutes, it should look puffy and foaming on the top.
When it comes to forming the braided loaf, it’s much simpler than it seems. The dough is first rolled out and spread with cinnamon sugar. Then, it is rolled up into a log and then cut down the middle to reveal the inside. The two halves are then twisted and wrapped into a wreath.
This recipe is extremely versatile. If you wanted to make more of a dessert loaf, you could drizzle the bread with a cream cheese glaze. I personally look forward to making this recipe again but swapping the cinnamon sugar with Nutella. Mmm and top it with some toasted hazelnuts. Yep, definitely will be trying that next time. But I’m getting ahead of myself. My point is to take this recipe as a baseline and experiment off of it. That’s the beauty of baking!
This recipe is adapted from Little Sunny Kitchen.
For the dough:
- 1¼ cup warm water, around 110-115 degrees F
- 2¼ tsp (1 package) dry yeast
- 3½ tsp sugar
- 4 cups all-purpose flour
- ½ tsp salt
- ¼ cup oil
- 1 tbsp white vinegar
For the filling and topping:
- ¼ cup butter, softened at room temperature
- ½ cup granulated sugar
- 3 heaping tsp ground cinnamon
- Sprinkle of powder/icing sugar
- Grease your 8-inch spring-form pan.
- Dissolve a teaspoon of sugar in the warm water and sprinkle the yeast on top, mixing lightly. Let the yeast proof for 5 minutes.
- Add the yeast mixture to the standing mixer bowl and add the flour, remaining sugar, salt, oil and vinegar. With the dough hook attachment, knead the dough for 5-7 minutes on a medium speed or until the dough is smooth and elastic. It should be slightly tacky but should not stick to your fingers. Coat the dough ball with oil and cover with a damp cloth, let it rise in a warm, draft-free place for about an hour or until it has doubled in size.
- After that the dough has doubled, flour the work surface and roll out the dough as thin as you can shaping it into a rectangle. Mix the sugar and cinnamon together in a small bowl. Spread the dough with softened butter and sprinkle generously with cinnamon sugar. Roll the dough into a log (roll starting from the longer side of the rectangle). Using a sharp knife cut it along its length into 2 equal halves leaving one end still attached. Turn the 2 halves facing outwards so it exposes the layers of dough and cinnamon sugar. Cross the halves over each other to form an X and continue to twist the halves until you reach the end and pinch the ends together.
- Coil the twisted log in the spring pan so it forms a wreath shape. Cover with a damp cloth and let rise for 30 minutes.
- Bake wreath at 400F for 10 minutes and then lower to 350F and bake for another 40 minutes until golden. Check the bread frequently to make sure the top isn’t getting burnt. If it begins to get to dark for your liking, cover the bread with tin foil. Let it cool then sprinkle with some powdered sugar. Cut a slice and enjoy with a cup of tea or coffee.
Winter in Russia
“Please tell me again why on Earth I’m being shipped out to godforsaken, freezing cold Russia at 4 in the morning to meet your mysterious sister I’ve only heard about, like, twice?” I grumbled to my dad as we pulled up to the airport drop off.
Dad sighed, stopping the car and rubbing his temple. “Shouldn’t you be excited? You always say you like being independent. Plus, you’ve never met this side of my family, and they are curious about you.”
“Maybe I would be more excited if I wasn’t up at this ungodly hour. And yes, I like being independent in a country that I can actually understand what people are talking about. I don’t know diddly squat about Russian!”
“Never mind, I know,” I interrupted, waving my hand dismissively. I got out of the car and pulled my luggage and backpack out of the trunk.
Dad came out of the car and wrapped me in a hug. “Don’t stress too much. You’ll be fine, and try to make the most of it.”
“I know,” I repeated, burying my face into his shoulder. “I’m just really nervous.”
After a moment, Dad slapped me on the back and nudged me to the airport doors. “Tell your aunt your mom and I send our regards. Keep us updated.”
I grabbed my stuff and gave a weak smile. “Will do. Love you, Dad.”
“Love you more, Rachel.”
With a small wave, I stepped into the airport and braced myself for lots for standing in lines and waiting.
After over an hour and a half of lines, checking baggage, getting lost, and stressing hard before finding the correct terminal, I dumped my backpack on the floor and flopped into an uncomfortable seat. It was too early in the morning to be functioning. Not even 15 minutes later, a flight attendant called for the boarding my flight. I found my seat which was next to a window and towards the front of the plane. Immediately, I put on my headphones, plugged it into my iPhone, and started playing music. There was no way I wanted to carry any sort of conversation this early on a nine-hour flight. After putting my phone in airplane mode and shifting into a comfortable position, I closed my eyes and quickly drifted off to sleep.
I woke up to an icy splash on my leg. My eyes snapped open and I ripped of my headphones off. “What the heck?” I snapped, jerking my leg to the side. My sweatpants were soaked with some freezing cold liquid. As I turned to my seatmate ready to stab him or her with a glare, my irritation quickly faded to sympathy. My seatmate was an elderly woman whose hand that was holding a cup of soda was trembling uncontrollably. She attempted to drink from it again, but her shaking increased and more soda sloshed out of the cup. I wrapped my hand around the quivering cup to stabilize it and helped the old lady drink from it. After drinking her soda, she turned to me with a hint of surprise and said something in what I assumed was Russian. I offered the best smile I could manage right after waking up, puzzled over what she said. Probably along the lines of ‘thanks,’ right?
“She said, ‘thank you, young lady,’” a new voice said as if answering my thoughts. I meet eyes with a guy who couldn’t be much older than me. He slid into his seat next to the elderly woman and spoke to her in Russian. She smiled and nodded as he helped her finish the rest of her soda. Once she settled back in her seat, the guy turned his attention to me and smile, offering a hand shake.
“I’m Igor. Nice to meet you.”
I shook his hand and briefly noted that while his name was definitely Russian, his English was perfect without a trace of an accent. “Rachel. Likewise.” I paused for a second contemplating if I should go back to my own business or start a conversation. Typically, I would have chosen the former, but Igor seemed nice enough so I asked, “Not to be nosy or anything, but are you from Russian?”
He nodded. “Yeah, I was born there, but my family immigrated to the U.S. when I was in elementary school. I travel back to Russia frequently to see relatives.”
“Are you related to her?” I asked, gesturing to the older lady.
He laughed. “No, just met her on the plane today. While you were asleep, she was telling me about her neurological problems and her past five spinal surgeries.” The lady then tapped Igor on the shoulder to get his attention and asked him something, gesturing towards me. “She asked me how old you are.”
“18,” I replied. “I’m a senior in high school.”
Igor translated and then turned to me saying, “I’m 21. Also a senior except in college.”
Turns out that Igor was a student at Vanderbilt University and was planning on going to graduate school at UC Santa Barbra. I told him that I just got into my early decision school and was planning on attending University of Southern California. We continued our conversation for the next couple hours, Igor stopping here and there to translate for the elderly woman. I was startled when the pilot spoke over the intercom, announcing that we were fifteen minutes from touchdown. The flight went by faster than I thought.
After we landed, Igor and I helped the woman get her carry-on and then one of the flight attendants brought her a wheelchair to help her get out of the plane. I grabbed my backpack, tucking in my headphones and pulled up the email from my aunt on my phone with the name of the metro station she said she would be picking me up at. I worriedly ran my fingers through my hair. Given how bad I was at directions, I was almost guaranteed to get lost in addition to not being able to read any signs.
“Need help getting where you need to go?” Igor asked, glancing at me over his shoulder. He looked like he was ready to leave.
I grimaced, “Was it that easy to tell?” I didn’t want to bother him, but chances are that without any help, I would be on the other side of Russia. Literally.
He laughed and waved his hand at me. “Your face says everything. Where do you need to go?”
I handed him my phone and pointed at the name of the metro station. “That place, however you pronounce it. I’m not even going to try to say it because I know I’m gonna butcher it.”
“I’ll actually be passing this station on my way. You are welcome to join me.”
“Are you sure it won’t be a bother?” I asked with tentative hope.
“Positive,” he grinned, giving me back my phone. “Come on, let’s get off this plane.”
After we got through Customs and retrieved our luggage, we both pulled on our thick winter jackets, ear muffs, and gloves before exiting the airport. Even though it was dark and around 10 at night, Igor started pointing out the typical tourist attractions and historical sites, and I was half listening to him half paying attention to how cold it was. This cold was biting and brutal! My sweatpants were still damp from that soda spill, and it had already froze since stepping outside, sending chills up my leg. Even with all my layers, my teeth were still chattering and my fingers were starting to feel numb.
“That’s Moscow’s Red Square,” Igor pointed into the distance, interrupted my thoughts. I followed his finger and was immediately stunned by one of the buildings which was gorgeously lit against the night sky. It looked like a colorful gingerbread house!
“St. Basil’s Cathedral?” I asked, still gaping in awe at the building. If it looked this amazing being so far away, I couldn’t imagine how impressive it looked up close.
“Yup, every time I see it, it’s so impressive. Doesn’t get old.”
Ignoring my freezing fingers, I took out my phone and pulled of my gloves to snap a few pictures. This just might become my new phone background. Igor patiently waited as I snapped away.
“Ok, ok,” I grinned, shoving my phone back into my pocket. “My tourist moment is over. Let’s get out of the cold before we freeze to death.”
We walked at a quick pace to find the nearest metro, and Igor guided me towards an automatic machine where we could buy tickets. He showed me how to buy my metro ticket while explaining how the metro system worked using this complicated looking circle map. Thank god Igor was helping me. When we stepped into the metro tunnel, I was again struck by how beautiful the architecture was. Fancy chandeliers hung from the ceiling with beautiful tile floors. It was so much prettier than I expected. The metro was also much busier than I expected. People were everywhere.
Our metro quickly arrived, and as we boarded, I noticed many people were giving me strange glances or frowning towards me. I leaned towards Igor and asked, “Why are people giving me weird looks?”
Igor looked up from his phone and looked me up and down. “It’s probably because of what you’re wearing.”
“What’s wrong with what I’m wearing? Other than the fact that part of my sweatpants is frozen?”
Igor shrugged. “It’s a cultural difference thing here. Women in general here are expected to dress very well.”
“Even at 10 at night right after a 9 hour flight?” I asked incredulously.
He smirked. “Yup. You stick out like a sore thumb.”
My eyes swept over the crowd of people in the metro car and realized that Igor was right. All the girls were dressed impeccably in fashionable fur hats and coats. Man, the nicest clothes I brought are going to look casual here…
After about ten minutes of sitting on the metro, Igor tapped my knee and told me, “This next stop is you.”
“Impressive, isn’t it?”
I nodded and started to double check to make sure I had all my things with me. Then I turned to Igor and smiled. “Seriously, thank you so much for all your help. I don’t know where I would be right now without you.”
He grinned back, good-naturedly. “No problem. It’s been fun. Hope you enjoy your stay in Russia.” He dug into his pocket, pulled out his phone, and handed it to me. “You got a Facebook?”
“Yeah, hold on.” I searched for myself on his Facebook app and sent a friend request before handing it back to him just as the metro slid to a stop. “It was really nice to meet you, Igor.”
“You too. Who knows, we might run into each other again.”
“Maybe,” I agreed. “I guess I’ll see you around then.”
He smiled warmly and waved as I grabbed my stuff and hopped off the metro. Among the crowd, I spotted a middle-aged man holding a sign with ‘Rachel Erin’ printed in messy English.
“Uncle Arsov!” I called out, and he turned his head in my direction. I waved before lugging my bags over to where he was standing. He met me halfway, cocking an eyebrow at my outfit but nonetheless pulled me into a quick hug and grabbed my luggage.
“Glad to see you here,” Uncle Arsov responded in heavily accented English. “Your aunt and cousins are at home.”
I nodded eagerly. “A guy I met on the plane helped me get here. I can’t wait to meet everyone.”
Uncle Arsov led me to his car, and after we loaded my bags, we headed the apartment. Uncle was very proud of his family’s apartment, and apparently, very few people in Russia lived in houses. Uncle parked his car, grabbed my stuff, and I followed him up the stairs of the boxy, neutral-colored building. I lost track of how many flights of stairs we went up and was just about to ask how much further we had to go when he stopped in front of a door that looked the exact same as the other doors. Uncle unlocked it and welcomed me inside.
The first two things that hit me was the blast of warmth and the sweet, spicy scent of cinnamon. Inhaling deeply, I set down my bag and slid off my coat. The apartment was small, not a lot of space anywhere but it felt cozy and homey. “Auntie Arsov?” I called out.
A woman with blond hair peeked out of a doorway and exclaimed in lightly accented English, “Rachel, you arrived!” I was started at how much she resembled Dad. They had the same slightly curled hair, brown eyes, and warm smile. She strode towards me, and I quietly admired how put together she looked, even in her own home. She gave me a quick embrace and then pushed me towards the dining table. “Wait here,” she said, pointing to one of the wooden seats. “I’ll go get you some bread and tea.”
Uncle Arsov joined me at the table, and moments later, my aunt came out with an intricately braided wreath bread dusted with powder sugar and a platter with a kettle and tea cups. Aunt Arsov cut me a generous portion of the bread and handed me a cut of tea. I paused to admire the bread. Its inside was so soft with swirls of cinnamon running through it while the outside crust was crisp with caramelized sugar coating it. My first bite was heavenly.
“Auntie, this is so good!” I exclaimed, reaching for the cup of tea. I took a gulp and almost choked. Their tea was incredibly strong and bitter. I was not expecting that. I went back to eating the bread.
“Oh this? This is nothing. It’s so easy to make,” she said modestly, waving away my compliment. “You can find good bread everywhere.”
“Well it is still delicious,” I respond. “How do you say ‘it’s delicious’ in Russian?”
“Eto vkusno,” Uncle replied. His smile seemed to say that he approved of my attempt to learn their language.
“Eto vkusno,” I repeated, directing it to my aunt.
She gave me an encouraging nod and said, “By the end of this visit, hopefully you speak a little Russian.”
“That would be awesome,” I agreed. “I also can’t wait to try all the different types of food!”
“You must try borscht while you are here. Hmmm also, piroshki and mutton, and Tula gingerbread,” Aunt Arsov counted off her fingers. “Of course, our sausage as well.”
“I can’t wait to try all of them!”
“We were actually worried you would not have a good time here in Russia,” my uncle admitted. “It is very different here than U.S.”
I shrugged sheepishly. “To be honest, I didn’t really know what to expect coming here. I think the worst part was the fact that I knew it was going to be so cold.”
My aunt and uncle shared a knowing glance at each other and then directed their eyes on me. “Rachel, today was one of our warmer days.”
“Aw geez,” I mutter. “That something I’m going to have to get used to.”
Aunt Arsov gave me a playful nudge. “You are also going to have to dress a little better.”
I shot her a joking glare. “Yeah, figured that.”