The holidays are coming and it’s time for me to challenge my baking skills. I know that sounds dangerous because we all want our holiday treats to be just perfect. So why take on a new project instead of relying on tried and true recipes born from family traditions? I am fortunate to have a couple of friends who are very skilled bakers and they never make the same holiday treats twice. Cookies, pies, breads, cakes and candies that dazzle the eyes and the palates. Impressive. So this year I’m taking my cue from them and I’m baking Stollen or Christstollen as it is called in its German homeland. I cannot bake Dresden Stollen because, like Champagne, you must be there to use that name. Stollen is a dense, fruit and nut-filled bread that has been traced to the 1400’s when only royalty could afford the fruits, nuts and spices that make it distinctive. Germans celebrate four Advent Sundays, so this bread is meant to have a long shelf life. Other countries have their festive, fruit-filled sweets, too. Italy has its Panforte; Ireland, its Barmbrack; America, it’s fruitcake. But stollen, which is often filled with a rope of almond paste and covered with layers of butter and sugar to represent the baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes, seems to hold a special place on holiday tables worldwide.
I have never made stollen, but this year I’m giving it a try.
Phase 1: Finding the recipe. Not so easy. I began my search by consulting favorite baking books and found recipes in 3 of them, all different, of course. I then consulted websites like King Arthur Flour, Food52, NYTCooking and Google for blog sites far and wide. I reached out to my skilled baking friends who both use Martha Stewart as a point of reference. The distinctions I must consider are these: what kinds and how much dried fruit to use; what liquid/liquor to soak the fruit in; to fill or not to fill the loaf with almond paste; kind and quantity of nuts; differences in spices; how much butter to incorporate in the dough(that seems to affect the lightness/density of the loaf); and how the loaf should be coated post baking. Should I simply just follow a recipe as written or should I make adjustments to suit our flavor profile?
Phase 2: Shopping for ingredients. I have learned over time that the key to a great bake is beginning with great ingredients. First, I must locate the dried fruits. Both Sprouts and Trader Joe’s have great selections of fruit and nuts. I have good spices that I have acquired from Penzey’s and Burlap and Barrel. I think a loaf like this calls for European butter, so I’ll use Kerrygold. I’m going to make my own almond paste since it sounds relatively easy to do so I’ll need some Bob’s Red Mill almond flour for that. And I’ll try to locate some candied orange peel since I tried making that once and made a big sticky mess in my kitchen. King Arthur Baking is a good supplier for hard-to-find ingredients, so I may have to order candied peel from there.
Phase 3: Almond Paste and preparing dried fruit. Some Stollen recipes have a rope of almond paste that hides as a sweet surprise in the loaf. Some do not include it, but I found a recipe from King Arthur that sounded easy enough, so why not give this a try? In 10 minutes the sweet ball of almond paste was finished, rolled into a log and refrigerated. My next task was weighing and prepping the dried fruits. I’ve learned to rely on kitchen scales instead of cups for measuring dry ingredients. Aside from mincing the orange peel and the apricots, preparing the fruits was also easy enough. The raisins and currants both need to soak overnight (orange juice for the raisins and Cognac for the currants.) Almonds also needed chopping. Now that all of those ingredients are prepped, I’ll be ready to bake tomorrow.
Phase 4: Make the dough. Before baking morning I reached out to my friend Sara who makes Stollen every year to see if she had any advice to pass along. She uses the Martha Stewart recipe and makes very few modifications. She suggested adding the fruits and nuts to the dough halfway through the dough making process because they incorporate more easily when the dough is not stiff, so I did that. She also makes 6 loaves with the dough instead of two large loaves, but I decided to just do the two large loaves. The dough came together easily. Once the dough feels like good dough, soft, not sticky, and has been kneaded well, it has to rest until double in size, about 2 hours, depending upon the temperature in the kitchen. Then the loaves get shaped. Shaping it is a little tricky because of the rope of almond paste but I follow directions from King Arthur to get that just right Then the dough has to rest and rise a second time, less time, before heating the oven for baking.
Phase 5: The bake. Patience and a good oven thermometer are necessary at this point in making the loaf. Recipes are but guidance. I knew it would take between 30 and 50 minutes because these loaves were large. I set the timer for 30 minutes to start and then began taking the dough’s temperature. It needed to get to 195 degrees F. Kitchen chemistry. At this point I am watching the crust get brown, the loaves take on shapes of their own and the internal temperature is only 140. More time is needed. The timer is set for 10 more minutes and I am pacing around the house. Time passes and the internal temperature registers 180. Getting there, but not quite baked. Ten more minutes pass. Yes! The bake is complete.
Phase 6: Post-bake instructions. The loaves are lifted off the trays onto a cooling rack where they sit for 5 minutes to rest before they are slathered with butter and then dressed with vanilla sugar. You would think that now the job is done, but no. Another hour must pass to cool the loaves before the final coat of powdered sugar can be applied. It is this coat that mimics the baby’s blanket. I have plenty of dishes to wash so that hour passes quickly, and the white powder is applied. Time to taste. This had better be good!
The End or just the beginning? No suspense. The stollen tasted great. It sliced beautifully, too. The next time I make this I will divide the dough into smaller loaves that will be appropriate for gifts. As it now stands, one loaf is tucked safely in the freezer and the other is being slowly eaten with breakfast. Having challenged myself once this season may be enough, though I saw a loaf from Northern Italy called Gubana that may be calling my name…
Click for Jane Applegate Belzer's Stollen recipe.
[Photos by Shelly Belzer and Jane Applegate Belzer]
Jane Applegate Belzer, retired professor and Dean of USF’s College of Education, joined OLLI in 2012. She has taken OLLI classes in literature, art, history, lifestyles, nature and technology. Jane is a member of the Hiking SIG and the Faculty Support Team. With Ara Rogers, she teaches A Course is Born: From Concept to Classroom, an OLLI course for prospective instructors.