9th of March marks the end of the Days of the Old Women and the beginning of the Days of the Old Men; it also marks the Spring Saints or the Day of the 40 Martyrs -yet another day in which Christian holidays are entwined with pre-Christian celebrations. And from the midsts of all the celebrations, of all the various traditions of this day, one common symbol emerges -the Mucenici (a “type” of Saints); although their true symbolism got lost, or diluted, Romanians still bake these anthropomorphic figurines on this special day, in the memory of their ancestors and all the departed ones.
I still remember my astonishment as a child when looking at these Saints, which at the time looked very peculiar -neither sweet, not salty, neither cake, nor bread. I could not understand my people kept baking the strange dish year after year, why we’d piously accept them and why we’d treat them with an unspoken respect. Only now I understand: because this strange baking, in the shape of a human, or a bee, is the only thing you can do for the departed, for their memory, for them…
I baked Mucenici for the first time, in the loving memory of our grandmothers and our grandfathers, those whom we’ve met and miss, and those whom we haven’t met, and for all those who are no longer here. And I had the great joy of sharing them with dear Romanian friends.
Here is the recipe, a combination between Radu-Anton Roman and Sanda Marin:
- 500 gr flour; 20 gr yeast; 1 teaspoon oil; 1 teaspoon sugar; 1 teaspoon salt; 3 dl milk mixed with water; 2 tablespoons honey; ground wallnuts.
- Syrup: 1 cup water; 6 teaspoons honey
- Honey and ground walnuts
Activate the yeast in some warm milk, mixed with the teaspoon of sugar. Leave to activate in a warm place, until a yeast paste forms. This is then mixed with a handfull of flour, and stirred very well (until small bubbles emerge). The mixture should be left to rise in a warm place (e.g. in front on a warm oven), until it increases threefold in size. When risen, add to the rest of the flower, together with the oil and salt. Start mixing, by adding the milk, honey and wallnuts gradually. The dough should be thoroughly kneaded. After it’s well kneaded, leave to rise in a warm place for about 40-50 minutes.
When risen, model the Saints as eights, by rolling pieces of dough into strings of 1 sc diameter. Place to rise again in the shape of eights, and after they have risen again, bake in the oven over medium heat. Egg-wash them to get the beautiful golden colour. When ready, cool down. Prepare the syrup my mixing the water and honey over medium heat, until thickened. When the Saints have cooled, briefly (2-3 seconds) place them in boiling water (to soften the crust), place in a bowl and pour the honey syrup over them. After they absorb the syrup, glaze each one with honey and sprinkle each with ground walnuts.
Once they look beautiful, they should be given away in good faith, for the souls of the departed.