NAUGHTY OR NICE?
The snow has finally arrived, albeit in fits and bursts, bringing with her a true feeling of Christmas. The wind whistles and howls outside as the snow whips around in the wind, lighting up the square below and adding a festive luster to the treetops, while inside we sit cozy and warm. Like wide-eyed children on Christmas morning, we stare through the panes into the velvet night as the heavy plops of white thud against the glass and settle onto the inky black iron curlicues of the balcony railing for the night. The lamplight shimmers in the glistening snow blanketing the roofs of the cars and we snuggle up a little closer and whisper our prayers that it will last through the holidays.
One last day of shopping before Christmas and the gifts are all bought, piled up in secret places around the apartment. My baking has taken a festive turn and Stollen and cookies of all sorts have been tumbling out of the oven and lining themselves up prettily on the kitchen table. We’ve stocked the pantry with all kinds of simple, warming foods, enough to see us through the wintry weekend. My favorite Christmas films are stacked up on the coffee table, the old and the new, the real and the animated, each begging to be watched first, promising to fill our house with holiday music, laughter and good cheer!
Tomorrow morning, we will wend our way to the market, bundled up in heavy coats, arms wrapped close around ourselves to ward off the blustery wind and the tat tat tat of wet flakes stinging our cheeks. We’ll push our way through the Christmas Eve crowds and fill our basket with oysters and a slice or two of foie gras, and maybe, just maybe, he will make a wonderful seafood choucroute for two. I’m rather a sentimental old soul, and as I step out into the flurries and chill, memories of Christmases past whirl up like a snowstorm in my mind and visions of icy white nights in Milan pulling smoky chestnuts out of paper cones, warming our hands, and popping them one by one into our mouths, excited little boys dashing up to greet le Père Noël who magically appears laden with gifts at their grandparents’ house, arriving late Christmas Eve to a balmy Florida town and being driven around up and down every street just to ogle the gaudy, outrageous Christmas decorations and the romantic luminaries all aglow, hands clapping and faces brimming over with delight, all intermingle in one glorious dance! But nostalgia is not far behind and I remember the most amazing of gifts arriving from Uncle Michael, chosen special for each of the boys, a silly drawing, his own self-portrait scrawled across the card in guise of a signature, and personalized e-cards arriving in our e-mailboxes on Christmas morning, singing and dancing us awake, making us howl with laughter. My smile hides my sadness and I chatter on tirelessly to create an atmosphere of mirth while I am crying inside knowing that no more phone calls, no more gifts or cards, no more old black & white movies arriving by post to cheer up another Christmas season will be mine for the asking, no more brother to call, no more phone ringing on a holiday afternoon only to hear his cheerful Helloooo on the other end of the line, no more gossipy silly supportive chats, my big brother and I, whenever the need or the desire rush over me. I miss him.
Yet the sadness is tempered with joy as we bustle around the house preparing for the festivities. No, I do not celebrate Christmas, but this year the pleasure is for JP. He called me up a couple of weeks ago in the middle of his workday and declared that maybe this year, this Christmas, we should exchange gifts. Which, of course, also means a special dinner. So as the last day of shopping and preparations begins, as the sun just begins to peek over the rooftops, as the day dawns not so much clear and bright as steely gray and hauntingly mysterious and smelling of snow, I make my market list, place the last of my gifts on the mantelpiece and pour myself another cup of coffee to accompany yet another slice of Stollen.
I wonder if I shall be considered naughty or nice? I suspect that this old elf ain’t the only one who has been buying presents, and joy and merriment fill the house from end to end. December’s Daring Bakers’ Challenge was hosted by Penny of Sweet Sadie’s Baking and she chose to challenge Daring Bakers’ to make Stollen. She adapted a friend’s family recipe and combined it with information from friends, techniques from Peter Reinhart’s book.........and Martha Stewart’s demonstration. Now, as many of you know, I made Stollen last year, a recipe quite unlike the one Penny has offered us. Last year’s was cake-like and, truth be told, not one of us was enchanted with either the texture or the flavor. It had, sadly, an unhappy ending. The Daring Bakers’ Stollen had me jumping for joy as it was a yeast recipe as well as an allure of something much more bread-like. I loved it before I even began. I followed the directions to a tee, yet I did alter the flavors to suit our taste more: no candied fruit, the bane of our gastronomic existence, adding a cupful of fabulous, tangy, fruity dried cranberries along with the citrus zests and the slivered almonds instead. I added a few tablespoons of ground almonds to the batter, soaked the cranberries in rum and added only vanilla extract. I sprinkled several tablespoons of cinnamon-sugar over the flattened dough before rolling it up, creating a decorative and flavorful swirl throughout the baked, barely sweet, delicate Stollen. I must say that this Stollen was absolutely one of the best things I have ever baked, ever eaten, and I have been eating slice after slice since I removed it warm and fragrant from the oven. Half was taken to the office, the other half enjoyed at home. This will be a favorite holiday recipe every year from here on out, although next time I will increase the quantities of rum, cranberries, almonds, both slivered and ground, and I will definitely double the amount of cinnamon sugar in the gorgeous swirl. Thank you, Penny, for a simply stunning holiday recipe!
I would like to share this wonderful Stollen with Yeastspotting, my favorite yeast baking event created and hosted by Susan of Wild Yeast!
I also want to share this for December's Bread Baking Day #35, a fabulous bread event created by Zorra of 1x umrühren bitte. This month's theme was Bread with Dry Fruits and was hosted by Taste of Pearl City!
And a joyous holiday season to you one and all!
Prepare the Stollen dough the day before baking:
¼ cup (60 ml) lukewarm water (110º F / 43º C)
4 1/2 tsps (1/2 oz/14 g) active dry yeast
1 cup (250 ml) milk
10 Tbs (140 g) unsalted or salted butter, cubed
5½ cups (770 g) flour + more as needed (measure flour before sifting)
½ cup (115 g) sugar
2 – 3 Tbs finely ground almonds
¾ tsp salt (if using salted butter there is no need to alter this salt measurement)
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 cup (100 grams) slivered almonds
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
Grated zest of 1 lemon and 1 orange
2 tsps very good quality vanilla extract
¾ cup (135 grams) mixed candied peel, optional
1 cup (170 gms) firmly packed dried cranberries
3 Tbs (45ml) rum
4 – 6 Tbs cinnamon sugar for the swirl, optional but fabulous!
Melted unsalted butter for coating the wreath
Confectioners’ (icing/powdered) sugar for dusting wreath
Note: If you don’t want to use alcohol, double the lemon or orange extract or you could use the juice from the zested orange.
Soak the dried cranberries in the rum in a small bowl the time it takes you to prepare the dough.
Pour the warm water into a small bowl, sprinkle with yeast and let stand 5 minutes. Stir to dissolve yeast completely. In a small saucepan, combine the milk and 10 tablespoons (150 ml) butter over medium-low heat until butter is melted. Let stand until lukewarm, about 5 minutes. Lightly beat eggs in a small bowl and add the vanilla extract.
In a large mixing bowl or in the bowl of an electric mixer with paddle attachment, stir together the flour, sugar, ground and slivered almonds, salt, cinnamon, orange and lemon zests. Stir in (or mix on low speed with the paddle attachment) the dissolved yeast, the lightly beaten eggs, the lukewarm milk/butter mixture as well as the soaked cranberries with the rum in the bowl. (Some people add the almonds and the dried fruit in after the dough has come together and knead in, but I find that extremely difficult and slippery. I now always add all dried fruits and nuts directly to the dry ingredients before incorporating the liquids and forming the dough). I added another half cup or so flour to the dough as I was stirring in order to have a working consistency. This should take about 2 minutes. It should be a soft and most likely sticky dough. When the dough comes together and all of the dry ingredients are moistened and everything is well blended, cover the bowl with either plastic or a clean kitchen towel and let rest for 10 minutes.
Scrape the dough out onto a well-floured work surface and knead the dough for 8 minutes until you have a soft and satiny, smooth, bread-dough consistency, flouring the dough and the work surface as needed. It may be slightly tacky but not sticky and the dried fruit and nuts should be evenly distributed.
Lightly oil a large bowl and transfer the dough to the bowl, rolling around to coat it with the oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator overnight. The dough becomes very firm in the fridge (since the butter goes firm) but it does rise slowly… the raw dough can be kept in the refrigerator up to a week and then baked on the day you want.
Shape the Dough and Bake the Wreath:
Remove the dough from the refrigerator and allow to rest at room temperature for 2 hours before shaping. Line a large baking sheet with parchment or oven paper.
Once the dough has rested, scrape it out onto a floured work surface, punch it down and roll out into a large rectangle of about 16 x 24 inches (40 x 61 cm) x ¼ inch (6 mm) thick. Sprinkle the dough generously with cinnamon-sugar all the way to the edges. Starting with a long side, roll the dough up tightly, forming a long, thin cylinder. Transfer the cylinder to the sheet pan. Pull the two ends around together, forming the dough cylinder into a ring and join the ends together, trying to overlap the layers to make the seam stronger and pinch with your fingers to make it stick. You can form it around a bowl to keep the shape. Using clean kitchen scissors, make cuts along outside of circle, in 2-inch (5 cm) intervals, cutting 2/3 of the way through the dough (to make this easier and to make sure that the slices were evenly spaced and that I had an even number of sections, I used a sewing tape measure. Once sliced, gently pull the sections out from each other so they will stay separated once risen and baked. Either spray the wreath lightly with spray oil or tap gently with a vegetable oil soaked paper towel. Cover lightly yet completely with plastic wrap and a clean kitchen towel and allow to rise at room temperature for 2 hours until at least 1 ½ times the original size.
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C).
Bake the stollen for 20 minutes, then rotate the pan 180 degrees for even baking and continue to bake for 20 to 30 minutes until the bread is a dark mahogany color and should sound hollow when thumped on the bottom.
Transfer to a cooling rack and immediately brush the top with melted butter while still hot then tap a generous layer of powdered sugar over the top through a sieve or sifter. Wait for 1 minute, then tap another layer over the first. The bread should be coated thickly with the powdered sugar. Let cool at least an hour before serving.