Every year on the 9th of March, Romanians celebrate a tradition that evolved from the story of the forty martyrs of Sebaste, which is now in present-day Turkey. The forty were Roman soldiers in the year 320 who were openly Christian and they were left out in the cold to freeze to death or recant their Christianity. The celebration of the forty martyrs commonly kick-starts the agricultural year and is a day when traditional Romanian smallholders clean up with households and courtyards and burn all the rubbish.
These sweet pastries, typically in the form of a figure eight (said to represent the human body), are made and eaten around the country on the 9th of March, although their form differs from region to region. Moldavian ‘mucenici’ are larger and coated in nuts and honey, whilst their Dobrogean counterparts are smaller and boiled in water, sugar, walnuts and cinnamon.
I had only eaten them once before, and those were ones from a shop and a bit bready and dry, but I was very pleased with how these ones turned out – soft and fluffy inside, with a slight crispiness to the exterior, and of course the crunch of the nuts and sticky goodness of the syrup.
For the dough:
550g of plain white flour
125ml of warm water
125ml of warm milk
150g caster sugar
90g of butter, softened and cubed
20g of fresh yeast, or one instant yeast packet
1 level teaspoon of salt
100g of shelled walnuts
150g caster sugar
1 packet of vanilla sugar or a few drops of vanilla essence (optional)
2ml of rum essence (optional)
The zest of one lemon (optional)
One egg yolk
50ml of milk
Time: 4 hours including proving periods
Servings: 20 pastries (normally you would make 40, one for each martyr, but depends on how many of you there are, or how greedy you are!)
1. Make a yeast starter by dissolving the yeast in the warm water with a teaspoon of the sugar. Mix well and leave for about 10 minutes still it starts to froth up. This basically kick starts the proving process and also lets you know the yeast isn’t a dud.
2. In a large mixing bowl, weigh out the flour, sugar and salt and stir to combine. Make a well in the middle and add the egg, warm milk, butter, and the yeast starter. Beat the liquid ingredients to combine and start drawing in the flour. Once it gets less gooey, use your hands to mix it into a dough ball. Knead this dough for a few more minutes and if it feels very sticky, add a little more flour. Sometimes at the beginning it will seem dry until the ingredients are well combined, so avoid the temptation to add more liquid until you’ve been mixing it for a good five minutes. Mine went from dry to very sticky over the first couple of minutes, so I added another handful of flour to get it to a nice silky, slightly tacky consistency after about 10 minutes of kneading. You can, of course, do all this in a bread mixture if you have one of those.
3. Once it has been well kneaded, is smooth and silky, and doesn’t leave your hands sticky any more cover the bowl and leave in a warm place for about an hour to prove. In the meantime, you can get on with the next three steps.
4. Crush the walnuts with a pestle and mortar until you get a course breadcrumby mixture. You can use a blender for this, but make sure you don’t over-blitz it and end up with a powder.
5. In a saucepan, bring 300ml of water to the boil, add 150g sugar and the essences and boil until you get a syrupy consistency (not too stiff, but something like olive oil). Once you’ve got a syrup, leave to cool a bit and add the lemon zest if using. I read some older recipes and they use neither the essences nor the lemon zest, so I’ll leave it up to you to decide what you want to add. I added the essences, but not the lemon, but only because what I thought was a lemon when I briefly glanced in the fridge before going shopping actually turned out to be a very yellow and lemon-shaped quince!
6. Finally mix together one egg yolk and 50ml of milk and set to one side. You’ll use this for brushing the buns before baking them.
7. Once the dough has had its hour of proving, knock it back into a ball and divide it into 20 equally-sized balls. Take a ball, roll it into a snake about 50cm long, fold it in half and plait it. Then form this plaited length of dough into a figure-eight shape by joining the ends and twisting. Then place them on a baking tray lined with baking paper. Repeat for the other 19 balls. You might need to bake them in two batches depending on the size of your oven. Anyway, leave a little space between them as you arrange them on the tray.
8. Leave the tray of uncooked mucenici in a warm place for an hour to rise.
9. Brush the mucenici with the egg yolk and milk mixture and put them into a pre-heated oven (180-190C) until golden (mine took about 35 minutes).
10. Once they’re done, take them out and brush them with the syrup you prepared earlier (or you can dunk them instead of brushing them) and then sprinkle the crushed walnuts on top. Some people also drizzle or brush them with honey before sprinkling on the nuts.
11. Eat warm or cold. They keep well for a couple of days in the fridge.