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Success tastes sweet for Sussex Psychology student

Bianca Popescu's “unique, traditionally Romanian” pastries won her the prize for Most Inspirational Dessert at an event to celebrate One World Week.

Bianca shaped the mucenici dough in figures of eight, then drenched them in syrup and covered them with nuts.

When you’re challenged to a bake-off, who do you turn to for advice? University of Sussex student Bianca Popescu consulted her grandmother and sought inspiration from her “superhero” mother.

And the effort paid off for Bianca, a first-year Psychology undergraduate, whose “unique, traditionally Romanian” creation won her the prize for Most Inspirational Dessert at an international celebration of the University’s diverse community.

As part of an event to support the University’s One World Week in March, faculty and students from the School of Psychology were invited to make a dessert from their home country.

Bianca impressed the judges with her Moldovian-style mucenici, also known as sfințișori, which means ‘little saints’ in Romanian.

The name refers both to the sweet dish (prepared in two distinct ways, depending on the region) and a religious celebration.

Every year on 9 March, friends and families in Romania gather to celebrate the ‘Forty Martyrs’ (known as mucenici), Roman soldiers who were tortured by Emperor Licinus (between 308-324), a persecutor of Christians, for refusing to renounce their beliefs.  

Bianca recalls: “As a child, I always looked forward to this festivity. The sweet honey, combined with toasted walnut and chewy, binge-worthy dough wasn’t like anything else. My mom would wake me up with the freshly baked pastry and invite me to have coffee with her in the kitchen, which was always filled with the smell of rum essence and melty honey.”

She decided to make the Moldavian version “as it is the closest one to my heart”. The dough recipe is very similar to the one used to make another traditional Romanian dessert (cozonac, a type of sweet bread).

Bianca went shopping for three bags of walnuts, lots of flour, 10 eggs and a mountain of sugar – which “doesn’t sound healthy”, she admits, while claiming the pastry is “worth the blood sugar spike”.

After she arrived home, Bianca cleaned the surfaces - “because, trust me, you need that space” - and asked her boyfriend to help.

“The first accident happened,” she says, “when the yeast started fermenting and was suddenly everywhere. We sorted that out and left the dough to rise for a couple of hours.

“Then we started kneading the dough in turns (as it is a demanding process only our grannies are trained to do from start to finish).”

The mucenici are made in the shape of a figure eight, said to denote the stylised human form of the martyrs themselves. “We formed shapes of 8 and baked them,” says Bianca. “Finally, we drowned the 8-shaped pieces in syrup and covered them in nuts.”

The whole process took a day to complete, but it was worth the effort for Bianca, who says: “I still have no clue how my mom was able to cook this before I even woke up. She probably woke up very early in the day (NB she’s my superhero).” 

If you’d like to have a go at making mucenici or cozonac, there are lots of recipes online, and a few of them are even in English!

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Posted on behalf of: School of Psychology
Last updated: Friday, 5 April 2019