Christmas stollen

My sister Ele is very big on Christmas traditions. A 'tradition' can be defined loosely in her book. Take the Advent calendar that hangs in my parents' dining room; it has 24 pockets on it with a sweet little ornament in each one, which are hung on the felt Christmas tree above as the days go by. One year during our childhood it was her turn to do the even numbered days and hang up the itty bitty Baby Jesus, the tree’s crowning glory, on December 24th. But lo and behold, instead of it being my turn the next year – you know, the normal, fair thing to do – it had apparently become 'tradition' that it was her job. At the ripe old age of 29 I’m still stuck with the odd numbered days.

This stubborn insistence on Christmas tradition can be a good thing, however. If not for her bullheaded regard for it, I probably would have skipped making stollen this year, a sweet German Christmas fruit bread which we started making 5 or 6 years ago after some encouragement from our mum. Ele and I usually give it to our aunts and uncles as gifts but neither of us will be with them this year, and the bread does require quite a lot of ingredients and more than a modicum of time and effort. I thought it would be easier to do without, but it never crossed her mind that we wouldn’t make the bread – I mean, it’s tradition!

I have to say I’m glad we pressed ahead with this particular tradition. If you have a genial companion to work with with and some Christmas tunes to listen to, it definitely doesn’t seem like work.

While there are a lot of steps involved, none of them are actually difficult. And the results are so impressive. I am rarely boastful of my baking achievements and most often downright critical. But with stollen I find myself secretly congratulating myself at my prowess. People go crazy for this bread, including me.

The beauty of stollen is that it’s adaptable to so many palates. Some versions include marzipan in the middle, some have nuts, some are more reminiscent of a fruitcake with the addition of candied peel, while those people who can’t abide the stuff can substitute dried chopped fruit instead. We usually fall firmly into the 'no candied peel' camp, but this year we ventured into a brave new world: Ele made her own! Our mum made it first and sent along the recipe, and we agree heartily with our parents that this candied peel is like nothing you’ve ever had from the supermarket. I ate a whole piece on its own… it really is like candy! (And would be divine dipped in dark chocolate.) If you think you don’t like candied peel, try making this and tell me then if you still don’t like it.

If you venture into stollen-making (and I so hope you do, because it’s fun, impresses people, and provides you with a whackload of edible gifts) you should know that stollen improves with age. Make the bread at least one day before you want to serve it, and preferably two. Later, once it’s lost most of its moisture and gone stale it’s wonderful toasted and slathered with butter. This stollen would make, shall we say, a great Christmas Day breakfast 'tradition'.

Quark Stollen
From Home Baking by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid

Makes 4 very large loaves or more smaller ones.

2 tsp yeast
1/2 cup warm water
1 tsp sugar
1 1/2 cups whole milk, heated to lukewarm
4 cups all purpose flour
2 cups quark, or substitute 2 cups plain whole milk yogurt that has been drained for 1 hour

1 cup currants
1 1/2 cups sultanas (golden raisins)
1 cup candied lemon or orange peel or a mixture, chopped small, or substitute a mix of dried cranberries and chopped dried apricots
1 cup orange juice
1 cup dark rum or strong black tea

2 tsp salt
1/4 cup sugar
7 to 8 cups all purpose flour
1 pound cold, unsalted butter

1/4 cup butter for brushing on top, optional
1/2 cup granulated sugar

The night before you wish to make the breads, dissolve the yeast in 1/2 cup lukewarm water and stir in the sugar. Let stand five minutes. In a large bowl combine the yeast mixture with the milk. Stir in 3 cups of flour until well mixed, then stir for about half a minute in the same direction. Add the quark or drained yogurt and stir in, then add one more cup of flour and stir until the dough is smooth. Cover well with plastic wrap and let stand overnight at room temperature.
Meanwhile (also the day before you want to bake) mix together the currants, raisins and chopped peel or fruit in a bowl. Add the orange juice and rum or tea nd mix well. Cover and let stand overnight.

When ready to proceed, drain the fruit mixture thoroughly in a sieve, reserving the soaking liquid; you should have about 1 cup liquid and nearly 4 cups fruit. Set both the fruit mixture and liquid aside.

Sprinkle the salt over the dough and fold in, then add the reserved soaking liquid and the sugar and fold in. Add 5 cups of flour, one cup at a time, first turning and folding to incorporate it, then kneading it in, while leaving the dough in the bowl.

Cut the butter into chunks and place in the food processor with 1 cup of flour. Process together. Add the butter and flour mixture to the dough in the bowl and knead it in well. Let the dough stand, covered with plastic wrap, for about an hour.

Line two baking sheets with parchment paper silicone liners and place them near your work surface.

Turn out the dough onto a generously floured surface. (You’ll use another cup or so of flour at this stage.) Flatten the dough out to about a one-inch thick rectangle. Spread the drained fruit over one half of the rectangle leaving a wide border all around. Fold the other half of the rectangle over the fruit, then fold the dough in half again the other way. Gently knead and roll it to help distribute the fruit through the dough, incorporating flour as necessary. Some of the fruit will break out to the surface as you knead; don’t worry too much about this.

Cut the dough into four equal pieces, or more as you wish (we made six breads this time.) Working with one piece at a time on a floured surface, flatten the dough into an oval about 12 inches long and 6 to 8 inches wide. Fold it over in half lengthwise to give a mounded oval about 4 inches wide. Brush off any excess flour and transfer bread to the baking sheet. Repeat with the other three breads, placing two on each sheet. The breads puff up considerably in the oven so leave several inches in between them!

Cover loosely with plastic wrap or a tea towel and let rise for 45 minutes; they will be a bit puffier but will not double in volume. Preheat the oven to 375F / 190C. Place a rack just above the middle of your oven and another below the middle, making sure there’s enough headroom (5 inches clearance) for the breads.

Bake for about 60 minutes (less if you are making more, smaller breads) with one sheet on each oven rack. Switch the baking sheets around after 20 minutes. If at any point they are getting too dark, cover them with a loose sheet of parchment paper.

When done the breads will be golden, and sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. They’ll still be soft and very fragile, so be careful when handling them until they cool. Remove the breads from the baking sheets onto cooling racks. Brush on the melted butter if you wish, and sprinkle the sugar on generously (it will stick to the loaves with or without butter.) Let the breads cool completely (4 to 6 hours) before wrapping tightly in plastic wrap.

The breads should stand at least overnight and preferably for 24 to 48 hours before serving. This helps the crumb firm up and improves the texture and flavour. The breads can also be frozen and defrosted at room temperature.