Monday, December 10, 2012

A Christmas Tradition

One sign of Christmas at our house is the smell of stollen baking.  This sweet, delicate bread is a German tradition, and the recipe we use comes from Sue's family.  It goes back at least to Sue's great-grandmother and is possibly even older than that.

Since I'm the baker/cook, the actual making of the stollen has fallen to me.  It's a bit of a quest, because I make it every year, and I always think that the ones from Sue's family are better.  Best of all are the ones that Sue's Aunt Anita makes.  Anita is now in her 90s and still going strong.  She bakes stollen every year, and hers are the nes plus ultra of stollen--delicious and with a delicate, moist texture that I envy.

We got the handwritten recipe years ago from Sue's mother, but there was an immediate problem:  the recipe called for "1-1/2 pounds of flour (7 cups)."  The problem is that 7 cups is more like 2 pounds of flour, so something was off.  This meant that I was fudging with the amount of flour for years, and I do mean years.  Eventually, I settled on something like 9 cups of flour--much more than originally called for.  But anything less seemed to make a dough I couldn't manage.

Then a summer or two ago, I asked Anita about this.  She mentioned something that wasn't noted in the recipe:  she sifts the flour.  Three times.  It occurred to me that sifting, which would aerate the flour, might affect how much liquid it would absorb.  So I tried it, and while the dough was very soft, I was able to make it with something like the 7 cups called for in the original recipe.  The results were wonderful.

So how much flour should you use?  It depends on your bread-making skills and how you assemble the dough.  If you're an experienced bread maker, and if you mix up the dough by hand (and not with a mixer), you can probably manage with 7 or 8 cups of flour.  If you find this too soft to handle or if you mix the dough in a machine, add more.  The bread will be a little stiffer and more substantial, but it will still be wonderful.

The other secret to great stollen is to bake it until it just done, and no longer.  This year, I baked it at 325 for 1/2 hour (I had been doing 350 for 20 - 25 minutes).  Again, the results were more delicate and delicious.

One last thing:  Sue's mother, Marie, was adamant that the fruit shouldn't be mixed into the dough (as most stollen recipes require).  In her family, the fruit was put in as a filling, with the dough wrapped around it.  The idea is that it resembles the baby Jesus, wrapped in swaddling clothes.  The fruit filling, by the way, can be any dried fruit you like.  We prefer a combination of raisins, sliced almonds, glace cherries, and candied pineapple and orange peel.  Some people like citron.  Whatever fruit you use, be a bit sparing.  If you put in too much, it will just fall out when you slice the loaf.  Here's the recipe.  (Click here for a printer-friendly version.)

(originally from Sue's mother, Marie Picker Griffin, who got it from her mother, Martha Becker Picker; adapted over the years by David Schildkret)


7-10 c. flour (I use unbleached all-purpose flour; I do not recommend bread flour in this recipe.  Sift the flour up to three times after measuring; use the smallest amount of flour possible.)
1 c. sugar
1 t. salt
grated rind of 1 large lemon
1 lb. butter, softened
3 eggs
2 c. milk
3 cakes, packages, or 3 T of yeast
1/2 c. warm water
brown sugar, cinnamon, candied fruit, and nuts for filling
confectioner’s sugar and milk for glaze

1.  Scald the milk and allow to cool. (I put the milk in a 1-quart measure and heat it in the microwave at 50% power for 4 minutes.)

2.  When the milk is cool, dissolve the yeast in the water.  Add a bit of the sugar, and allow to double in volume.

3.  Combine the yeast and the milk, and add 3 cups of flour to make a sponge.  Allow this to stand until it is puffy and risen to almost double in volume.

4.  While the sponge is rising, cream the butter.  Add the remaining sugar, salt, eggs, and lemon rind.  Combine this with the sponge.

5.  Add remaining flour until the dough is soft, but still substantial enough to knead.

6.  Knead the dough for a few minutes.  It will still be sticky, and it will probably never really be smooth and elastic like sandwich bread dough.

[Let's pause here.  I found a handy tool a few years ago, and it makes dealing with soft dough like this much more manageable.  It's called a bench knife (pictured to the right and available from cooking supply stores like King Arthur), and it's useful for lots of aspects of bread making.  You can use it to lift the dough while kneading--I just keep it in my right hand and scoop up the dough with it, sort of fold it over, and push down with my other hand.  It's also good for scraping up the dough from the work surface and for dividing the dough into loaves.]

7.  Place the dough in a buttered bowl covered with a towel or plastic wrap.  Set in a warm place and let rise until doubled in bulk (2-3 hours).  (One way to get a warm spot is to turn the oven for 30 seconds, then switch it off and put the bread dough in the oven.  Just be careful not to turn it on again for some other purpose!)

8.  When it has fully risen, punch the dough down and form it it into a ball.  Let it rest on the floured counter under a towel for 10 - 15 minutes.  Sprinkle with flour if necessary and knead a few times.  Divide the dough into 4 parts (this number has gradually changed in my wife’s family.  I think they started with 2, then went to 3; we find 4 an ideal size, but we do go to as many as 6 when we are making gifts).  Roll each part into a rectangle and fill.

9.  To fill:  roll the dough into a rectangle of about 3/8” - 1/2” thickness (for four-part dough, the rectangle is roughly 14” x 8” or 9”).  Sprinkle the whole surface with a tablespoon or two of brown sugar, and then with a generous sprinkling of cinnamon.  Spread these evenly over the surface--to the very edge--with your hand.  Now, have the long side of the dough horizontal and imagine it divided into 3 columns vertically.  Sprinkle fruit and nuts rather sparingly down the center column (I use raisins, candied orange peel, candied cherries, candied pineapple, and sliced almonds.  Resist the temptation to be overly generous:  the filling will just fall out when the bread is sliced!  I use only about 3 or 4 cherries on a layer, for instance, and I cut them in half.  Similarly, I use only 2 or 3 pieces of pineapple and slice them each into 2 or 3 bits.  A small container of orange peel easily fills all four stollens.).  Then fold one side over to cover the filling and press down gently.  (You are folding almost like you would a business letter, except that you are doing it from the side.)  Sprinkle the sugar, cinnamon, and goodies over the new top, and fold the second side over.

10.  Place on a greased baking sheet and allow to rise covered with a towel for 1/2 hour-45 minutes.  Proceed to roll and fill the remaining dough.

11.  After they have risen, bake the loaves at 325 - 350 degrees F. for 1/2 hour-45 minutes, depending on the size.

12.  Glaze:  If you prefer a clear glaze, mix 1 c. confectioner’s sugar with a few T of water or milk and drizzle over the loaves while they are still quite hot.  I prefer to see the glaze as white streaks, so I wait until the loaves are cool.  Mix 1 c. confectioner’s sugar with 2-3 T of milk, and drizzle off the end of a tablespoon using a side-to-side motion across the short dimension of the finished loaf.  Sue’s mother adds a dash of vanilla to the glaze, but I do not.  I find that it turns the glaze a muddy color, and it does not add a noticeable flavor.  It is more reasonable to add the vanilla if you are glazing warm loaves.

13.  Store tightly wrapped once the loaves are completely cooled and the glaze has hardened.

As you can tell, this is a bit of a project.  I usually enlist some helpers for filling the dough--everyone has one or two things assigned to them that they sprinkle on.  My oven will only hold two loaves at a time, but that's no big deal--I shape all four loaves, and then I bake them two at a time.  The second two rise an extra half-hour while the first two bake, but it doesn't seem to hurt anything.

The trick will be to keep from eating a whole loaf by yourself the minute it comes out of the oven.  But remember, the holidays are about sharing--so share!


  1. Wonderful suggestions! I am going to bake a couple with your recipe and a couple with my mother's recipe and compare the two. The finished products look very similar, but the bread technique is different. This will be fun!

    1. How is yours different, Lisa? Maybe combining the two will yield something even more spectacular!

  2. David, thought you'd like to know that I printed out your blog post about the stollen and brought it to Anita on Monday. She certainly enjoyed reading it. She also shared that there is yet another secret ingredient to her successful stollen making - she listens to Handel's Water Music while she mixes, kneads, waits, and bakes.