December has hit, and I am ready for Christmas baking. But not the Christmas baking of last week: not the Christmas baking that demands time for maturing and feeding, and weeks before the results can be devoured. I am here for (almost) instant gratification. The advent calendars are out, and that means we are officially in stollen territory.
Stollen is a yeasted hybrid of bread and cake, filled with spices, candied zest, cherries, nuts and currants or sultanas, and a rope of marzipan running through the centre. The idea is that the core of marzipan which runs through a modern stollen is supposed to symbolise baby Jesus, and the yeasted dough around it the swaddling clothes. Melted butter is painted onto the freshly baked stollen and dusted with icing sugar until a thin layer builds up; this has the dual purpose of keeping the moisture in the bread for longer, and meaning that the bread itself can handle less sugar in the mix. The original recipe is a little more modest, however: dating from 1474, that stollen was made of just flour, oats and water.
The story goes that in medieval Saxony (modern central Germany), Advent was a time of fasting in the Christian calendar, and it was not permitted to bake only with oil, rather than butter, for the period. Various popes were approached repeatedly over the years, until eventually Pope Innocent VIII, in a letter charmingly known as the ‘Butter Letter’, agreed that butter could be used during the advent period but only by Saxony’s Prince-Elector’s household, with others using butter during this time subject to a fine. The slightly anti-climactic conclusion to the story comes with the introduction of Protestantism to the area meaning that the Pope’s butter edicts no longer held sway.
Dresden is the homeland of stollen. There, tradition – and a European protected geographical indication dictates how the stollen is made, right down to the proportions of butter (and sultanas, peel, almonds and marzipan…). There, there is a 150-strong association of bakers – the Schutzverband – who maintain the stollen standards. We are not constricted by such strictures, although my stollen keeps largely in step with the tradition: with additional cherries and cranberries, but otherwise makes use of all the Dresden-essentials.
Stollen is a behemoth of a Christmas cake: a huge slab-like loaf – my stollen is more bread than cake, and that’s how I like it: ripe for a spread of butter. For my money, the stollen dough shouldn’t be too sweet: with the marzipan, the cherries and the icing sugar glaze, the dough needn’t be a further vehicle for sugar. It should hold itself as a loaf, with a thick, golden crust; inside, soft and spiced, and packed with dried fruits and nuts and, of course, the marzipan tunnel. It goes like this…
Makes: 1 large stollen (enough for 12 slices)
Takes: 3 hours
Bakes: 30-40 minutes
150g butter, soft but not melted
500g strong white bread flour
50g caster sugar
7g instant yeast
2 egg yolks
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon ground mixed spice
125g mixed dried fruit and peel
50g glace cherries
1 orange, zested
2 tablespoons bourbon
75g chopped almonds
For the glaze
30g butter, melted
2 tablespoon icing sugar
1. Combine the flour, sugar skate spices, yeast, milk and eggs, and knead together by hand or on a machine for 10 minutes. Add the butter in three additions, making sure each is incorporated before adding the next. Once all the butter is incorporated, place the dough in a large clean bowl, cover with clingfilm, and leave to prove for 1-2 hours or until the dough has doubled in size.
2. Meanwhile, soak the dried fruit and peel, the cherries and cranberries in the bourbon.
3. When the dough has doubled, drain off the soaked fruit and add it to the dough, along with the chopped almonds and orange zest. Knead this into the dough, making sure everything is evenly distributed, and return to the bowl to prove for another half hour.
4. Now to shape your stollen. Shape the dough into a long rectangle on the lined tray that you will use to bake and flatten the middle of it with a rolling pin, so that there is a deeper channel running along the dough. Roll the marzipan into a long, even worm and place it in the channel. Fold one side of the dough over so that it meets the other side, and press down to seal in the marzipan: this is easier shown than described, and this video is a good demonstration of the technique. Leave to prove for a final 30 minutes, until puffed.
5. Preheat the oven to 200°C. Bake the stollen for half an hour until the crust is firm and golden. Remove from the oven and brush with the melted butter while the stollen is still warm, then dust with the icing sugar and repeat before leaving to cool.