Traditionally, Serbian chesnitsa is a disk-shaped, yeast-raised bread. However, as the contributor of this family heritage recipe, writer Vesna Vuynovich Kovach, has noted: “Like living language, living customs evolve.” Over generations, family’s version of chesnitsa “became Austrianized, then Americanized, into an elegant, lightly sweet pastry filled with cream cheese, raisins, and pecans.”
But it still contains a key element--a coin key hidden inside the pastry. Before Christmas dinner, chesnitsa typically is passed around the table, and each person breaks off a piece to see if they can find the coin baked inside; whoever finds it will prosper in the year ahead. “This chesnitsa is quite different: a delicate, layered creation that resembles baklava, not practically suited for breaking off hunks,” says Kovach. But, “it’s still authentic chesnitsa because of the coin, the holiday, and the heritage.”
This recipe is from her mother’s mother, who was born in 1888 and lived in the Austrian-controlled Serbian region north and east of the Danube River.
Prepare the filling by combining the cream cheese, egg, sugar, nuts, and raisins.
Butter a deep rectangular baking pan, one that’s about 13-by-9-by-2 inches in size. As you work through this step, set aside the prettiest sheets of phyllo dough that you come across for the top few layers of the bread. Cover the unused dough with a towel as you go along so the sheets don’t dry out. To begin: Lay a sheet of phyllo in the pan. Using a wide pastry brush, brush the sheet lightly with melted butter, making sure to get all corners and edges. Lay down a second sheet. Brush with butter. Dot the dough with several small daubs of filling—about 1-2 tablespoons total. Repeat with 2-3 leaves of phyllo, buttering each one. Dot with more filling. Place the coin on the surface. Repeat the layering of dough, butter, and filling until filling is used up. Finish with the remaining phyllo sheets, buttering each one—and make sure to butter the final, top sheet well. Cut or score the chesnitsa with a sharp knife into small squares before baking.
To bake: Heat oven to 400 degrees for 10 minutes, then lower oven to 350 degrees and bake the chesnitsa until golden brown,15-25 minutes. As soon as the chesnitsa comes out of the oven, drizzle honey over it. Serve warm or at room temperature. Before you let folks bite in, be sure to tell them about the coin!
*Phyllo is very delicate and can dry out and tear easily, or, if wet, stick together. Contributor Vesna Kovach recommends: “Read all the handling instructions on the package before you begin. If your phyllo is much larger than your pan, just cut the whole stack in half with scissors.
Courtesy of Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
Vesna's version of the recipe is an evolved family version - as she says, it "Became Austrianized, then Americanized..." and is not the version most traditionalists would recognize. Thanks for writing!
Hello, the missing line is 2 tablespoons finely ground pecans or walnuts. I've corrected it now, thanks!