Most Eastern European households have an Easter tradition of sweet eggy bread. This is my family's — an enormous braided loaf, scented with nutmeg and lemon, peppered with almonds and plump golden raisins. It originated on my maternal grandfather's Czech side of the family tree, and all my life I've known it as houska. As in, "Uncle Ed is doing the houska this Easter." Or, "I burned the top of the houska." "Tell me again, who's bringing the houska?" It's a treasured Easter treat, the taste and scent of it mixed with holiday memories.
But you know what? My family has it all wrong. This bread isn't houska at all. We've been using the wrong name for at least 70 years. Does it matter?
The first clue that my family legacy was suffering a misnomer appeared when I shared the recipe here seven years ago. A reader chimed in almost immediately: "This is not houska but VANOCKA, and baked specially on Christmas." I shrugged this off, as of course all foods enjoy diversity of names and language, and houska is houska.
But that reader wasn't alone; SpicieFoodie also added a speck of commentary: "This is not houska — houska is a small braided, savory bread roll. The bread you've pictured here is called Vánočka (vanocka). It is found and eaten year long but it's not an Easter bread but rather a traditional Christmas bread. The name [vanocka] comes from the Czech and Slovak words for Christmas."
Well. The idea that our treasured bread has been called by the wrong name all our lives was just too much, but when I came back here to update the recipe for a new Easter season, I knew I had to face up to the possibility. I inquired at the oracle of the wider internet, and the answer was unequivocal: Houska is a bread roll. Vanocka (vah-NOTCH-kah) is a Christmas bread, and what we eat at Easter. The same type of dough is also shaped into a round loaf at Easter and called mazanec.
I was crestfallen, I admit. The word houska carries for me a wealth of memories: sneaking bites of yeasty sweet dough, watching yellow raisins grow fat and juicy in hot water, hearing my mother and grandmother grouch over how dry (or underdone, or under-risen) their bread this year turned out to be. But it was always perfect and waiting on Easter morning, a reason to get out of bed early for a rich, dense slab of bread that under no circumstances needed more butter and yet always got a little pat, with a sprinkle of salt. The most transcendent toast involved houska; the fights over last scraps of bread happened only over houska.
Can I substitute the more correct word retroactively? A culinary cut-and-paste into the texture of childhood memory? I don't think so. This bread will always be houska to me, regardless of any mistakes of memory or translation my great-great-aunts and grandmothers made in their own translation from the Old World to Cleveland, Ohio. The word, the bread, the memories are all too tightly tied.
Do you have a story like this in your family? A dish or a legacy carried into the New World from the Old, perhaps, and passed like a game of telephone from one kitchen to another? I am not sure where the boundaries of authenticity line up in these handovers, or when a recipe begins to be ours and not only belong to our originating place.
I know too that I am not the only one whose family has carried the bread and not the name in a direct line. Down in the comments sandy from nebraska says, "This looks just like my grandmother's Christmas Houska, except she added candied fruit. I never heard it called Vanoka. She was 100% Czech — parents came from the old country." Brenna_Kathleen also has a houska-making grandmother: "My grandma makes a couple loaves of Christmas Houska every year with some green and red candied fruit. She also always puts anise in," she says.
But I hope you're not put off by the linguistic wrangling; this bread is glorious, no matter what you call it. I feel that in sharing it I share quite literally a piece of my family and the taste of Easter morning. It's so dense, soft, and a little flaky — not springy or airy. The braided construction makes for a spectacular holiday centerpiece, and its sweet buttery flavor will have everyone reaching for a second (and third, and fourth) slice. It may look complicated, but it's quite straightforward and the rich dough is forgiving. I included some step-by-step photos to show how it all comes together.
I am glad to know the correct word for this bread, and even to learn a few traditions that my family didn't pass down (did you know that you're supposed to jump up and down while the bread is rising, to make it light?). In in my reading I learned that others (like me!) carefully assemble their bread only to have it slump to one side in the oven. Every year the houska or vanocka turn out a little differently, which means that we get to tell a story that braids last Easter with this one ("Remember how last year it was doughy in the middle?")
In the twists and turns of vanocka and houska I felt like I bumped against the place where family truth and culinary truth stretch, braid, and tense to accommodate one another. No matter what I call it (fine — I admit it will always be houska) I'll come back to this bread year after year to see, one more time, if I can make it stand up straight and keep the braids from slipping, and whether it will always be as delicious as my mother's.
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The dough after the first rise.
Sweet Braided Czech Bread with Almonds & Raisins
Makes 1 large loaf; serves 12 to 16
4 1/2 teaspoons (2 envelopes) active dry yeast
1 cup sugar, divided
1/2 cup heavy cream
8 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup (1/2 pound) unsalted butter, softened at room temperature for 2 hours
1 lemon, zested
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon nutmeg
2 large eggs
2 large egg yolks, plus extra for garnish
2 cups whole or 2% milk, warmed
1 cup chopped blanched almonds, plus extra to garnish
1 cup golden raisins, plumped in warm water and drained well
Mix the yeast, 1 tablespoon sugar, and cream together in the bowl of a stand mixer (or a large mixing bowl). Let stand for about 5 minutes or until the yeast begins to bubble.
In a separate bowl, work the flour together with the softened butter. Rub the soft butter into the flour with the tips of your fingers until well-mixed. Add the lemon zest and also work into the flour and butter with your fingers. Stir in the salt and nutmeg.
Add the the eggs, egg yolks, remaining sugar, and milk to the yeast-cream mixture. Use the mixer paddle or a wooden spoon to mix thoroughly.
Mix in the flour-butter mixture, switching to the dough hook near the end (or continue stirring by hand). Add the almonds and raisins. The dough will be smooth but still a little sticky.
Knead in the mixer for 5 minutes, or by hand for 7 to 8 minutes — just until the dough is taut and smooth on the surface. Clean out the bowl, then transfer the dough back into the bowl to rise. Cover and let rise in a warm place for 2 hours or until doubled in size.
Turn the dough out onto the counter and pat into a thick rectangle that measures about 9 inches by 18 inches. Cut into 9 strips.
Prepare a baking sheet by lining with a Silpat or parchment paper. Braid four strips together on the sheet to make the base of the loaf (It's OK to freestyle it here! No one will really see the bottom layer!). Braid three more strips and lay them on top of the base. Twist the last two strips together and lay on the very top.
Cover loosely with a towel and let rise for 1 hour until puffed. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350°F. Just before baking, brush the loaf with beaten egg yolk and sprinkle chopped almonds on top.
Bake at 350°F for 30 minutes, then lower temperature to 250°F and bake for an additional 30 to 45 minutes, or until a thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the loaf reads 195°F to 200°F.
Cool on a wire rack for at least 30 minutes before slicing. Leftovers can be stored at room temperature, wrapped airtight, for up to 5 days.
Updated from recipe originally published April 2007.
(Image credits: Faith Durand)