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Christmas Stollen

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I may well skip the cookies, shun the roast, and barely get all the presents wrapped on time, but I never forget to make Stollen. Stollen is my sacred Christmas tradition. Because it is the best. Because it is hard work but not of the fiddly kind. And because every stroke that beats the dough closer to crumbly buttery perfection reminds me of my grandmother.

Stollen is a traditional sweet yeasted bread originally from Central Germany and famously from Dresden, Saxony. It is usually studded with raisins, candied citrus peels, and subtly scented with rum and bitter almond. Sometimes it is filled with marzipan, but this version densely packed with slivered almonds is even better.

My grandmother sent me this recipe, in the form of a handwritten letter, about twenty years ago, and I have made it every single year since, never once skipping a beat. She included in the envelope a brittle newspaper clipping which explains “The proper way of handling Stollen”:

– According to strict Saxon rule, Stollen should not be cut open before Christmas eve – 24 December. Modern practice is somewhat lenient, however, and it is now acceptable to start eating Stollen on the first of advent (four Sundays before Christmas).

– Stollen should never be eaten with a knife and fork – not even a dessert fork. It should be savored by breaking off little pieces with your fingers.

– The best beverage to accompany Stollen is a good cup of coffee, possibly tea, but never wine or champagne, for which Stollen would be too sweet.

– Stollen should be cellar-cool when eaten, presented on a simple wooden board, and cut with a sharp, un-serrated knife.

I have never come across a better Stollen recipe. Naturally, we always abide by the rules, when the time to eat it finally comes.

Like many Christmas cakes and cookies, Stollen is best made a few weeks in advance.

Ingredients:

1 kg (8 cups) flour
100 g (4 oz) fresh yeast
100 g (1/2 cup) and 1 Tbsp sugar
500 g (2 cups and 4 Tbsp) butter
250 ml (1 cup) milk
Zest from 1 lemon
1 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
125 g (1 1/2 cups) slivered almonds
300 g (2 cups) sultanas
200 g (1 cup) currants
100 g (3/4 cup) candied orange and lemon peel
2 Tbsp dark rum
1-2 drops bitter almond oil (or 1 tsp almond extract)

For the sugar crust:

250 g (1 cup) Tbsps butter
Plenty of confectioners’ sugar

Method:

Place a large bowl with the flour in a warm spot until the flour feels warm to the touch.

Crumble the yeast with 1 Tbsp sugar; stir and watch as the mixture becomes liquid.

Melt the butter on a small flame, remove from heat, and add the cold milk.

Shape a well in the flour. Pour the remaining (100 g) sugar, lemon zest, salt, and vanilla extract into the well, add the milk/butter mixture and the prepared yeast. With a large wooden spoon, mix the wet ingredients into the flour using circular movements. Once the dough starts to detach itself from the sides of the bowl, beat with the wooden spoon for 10 good minutes.

Chop the candied citrus peel and sprinkle with the rum and almond extract.

Knead the almonds, raisins, currants, and candied citrus into the dough. Shape into a ball, cover the bowl with a damp cloth, find a warm spot in the house and let rise until the dough has approximately doubled in size, 2 to 3 hours depending on the room temperature.

Divide the dough in two and roll out each half into an oval approximately 1 inch (2.5 cm) thick. Fold the oval in half lengthwise, place on buttered parchment paper on a baking sheet and let rise again for 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 300°F (150°C).

Bake the Stollen for 45 to 50 minutes, or until the outside begins to harden, just as it starts to turn golden. Remove from the oven and immediately prepare the sugar crust.

In a small saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. With a food brush, cover the Stollen with a layer of melted butter. Using a small sieve, sprinkle generously with confectioners’ sugar. Repeat this process 3 or 4 times to form the crust. Let cool then store immediately.

To store the Stollen, wrap in parchment paper then tightly seal with aluminum foil and keep in a cool dry place. Never wrap the Stollen in plastic. A large tin box would be ideal.

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