Kolach (Ukrainian Christmas bread)
- November 2022
- Serves 8-10
- Hands-on time 40 min, plus overnight resting and up to 2¼ hours proving. Oven time 40 min
Step aside, panettone: there’s a new festive bake in town. Let Olia Hercules introduce you to kolach, a traditional Ukrainian braided loaf enjoyed on Christmas Day, studded with citrussy mixed peel, sprinkled with poppy seeds and baked with love.
Discover more Christmas baking recipes from around the world.
Olia Hercules is a London-based chef and food writer who in 2022, together with food writer Alissa Timoshkina, started the Cook for Ukraine campaign.
- 2.5g (0.9g saturated)
- 55g (6.9g sugars)
For the poolish
- 7g fast-action dried yeast
- 150g strong bread flour or plain flour, plus extra to dust
For the dough
- 150ml kefir, whole milk or water
- 2 medium free-range egg yolks
- 5g fine sea salt
- 1 tbsp honey or sugar
- 420g strong bread flour or plain flour
- 100g mixed peel (try to find quality candied citrus; or see Olia’s tips (below)
- 1 medium free-range egg yolk, beaten with a splash of whole milk
- Poppy seeds to sprinkle
- Make the poolish the night before. Mix the yeast and 150ml water in a large bowl, then stir in the flour to create a paste. Cover and leave in the fridge overnight.
- The next day, add the kefir (or milk or water), egg yolks, salt and honey (or sugar) to the poolish (which should have risen and turned a little spongy). Mix well with a whisk, then tip in the flour and mix roughly with a spoon. Wet your hand with water and continue to mix by hand. The mixture will look rough and ragged, but there shouldn’t be any dry patches of flour. Cover and leave to hydrate for 30 minutes to an hour at room temperature.
- While you wait for the dough to hydrate, finely chop your mixed peel (if it’s in large pieces), dried fruit and/or nuts.
- Fill a small bowl with water. Wet your hand and take a handful of mixed peel, fruit or nuts and sprinkle it on top of the dough. Stretch one of the sides up and flip it over. Keep wetting your hand (this stops the dough from sticking to it so much), then keep sprinkling, stretching and folding until the filling is used up. Cover and leave to rest for another 30 minutes to an hour until the dough has nearly doubled in size.
- Sprinkle your work surface with flour and pull the dough out of the bowl. Lightly knead it, moving it around the dusted flour – you don’t need to knead too intensely; you just want to bring it together into a smooth dough. Shape it into a tight ball and cut into 4 equal pieces. Shape each piece into a tight ball and cover, then leave to rest for at least 15 minutes to allow the gluten to relax.
- You’ll need quite a large clear space on your work surface, so make sure there’s enough room. Very lightly dust your surface with flour, then begin rolling each ball into a cylinder, elongating it into a 30cm rope from the middle outwards. If it starts to stick too much, add a tiny sprinkling of flour where it sticks, then continue.
- Pinch the 4 ropes together at one end. Now it’s time to being plaiting them. Take the rope nearest to you and thread it over the second rope, under the third rope and over the final rope. Take the new rope nearest to you and again thread it over the second, under the third and over the final one. Repeat this over-under-over process again and again, gently stretching and rearranging the ropes to keep them an even length as you work until the ropes are fully plaited together. Pinch the 4 ends together to create a neat finish.
- Line a baking tray with baking paper and give it a light dusting of flour. Put an ovenproof dariole mould or small bowl in the centre. Shape the plaited loaf around it, pinching the two ends together to create a circle. Lightly cover the kolach and leave to prove for a final 30 minutes. Meanwhile, heat the oven to 180°C fan/gas 6.
- Gently glaze the kolach with the beaten yolk and milk mixture, ensuring it’s thoroughly covered, then sprinkle liberally with poppy seeds. Put the kolach on the middle shelf of the oven and bake for 30 minutes, then turn the tray around 180 degrees to ensure an even bake and cook for another 10 minutes. The poppy seeds will make the kolach look quite dark but don’t worry – it will be delicious.
- Remove the tray and let the kolach rest for at least 15 minutes to 1 hour. Lift the mould out from the centre and transfer the kolach to a serving plate. Serve sliced with salted butter and a cup of coffee or tea. It’s also amazing toasted for breakfast the next morning or served with cheese.
Olia says: “Making a poolish is a good thing, as the flavour is much more developed, but if you forget or don’t have time, just mix the wet ingredients and yeast with the dried ones and it will still come out beautifully. Don’t stress – just enjoy cooking this festive treat.”
“Kolach can be plain or it can have many additions. I’m using mixed peel here, but you can add anything you like: raisins and chopped dried apricots, soaked in either rum, sherry, tea or juice; toasted nuts; even crystallised ginger, which isn’t traditional, but I think anything you love that means Christmas to you is a good call.”
“In Ukraine we eat kolach just as it is, but my British husband loves it toasted the next day with a little bit of lightly salted butter. Sliced, it freezes well, but I doubt you’ll have any leftovers. If you do, kolach is amazing in a bread and butter pudding.”
The kolach is best on the day it’s baked but will keep in an airtight container for a few days. Alternatively, slice, wrap and freeze for up to a month.
A poolish is a version of a sourdough starter but much quicker, requiring only an overnight ferment. It encourages gluten to form in the final product and adds body and depth of flavour to bakes.
Strong or plain white flour will both make an excellent kolach. Strong flour will make it more bready; plain flour more cakey.
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