Say the word "Christmas" and the word "tradition" is usually not far behind, especially where food is concerned. Around the holiday season, families tend to lean heavily on customs passed down from generation to generation and you will find most are reluctant to change. My mother-in-law has made blueberry pancakes on Christmas morning for the last 22 years and when the 25th rolls around in just a few weeks, she'll be serving them to her grandson for the first time. (Thank goodness Noah adores pancakes!)
Without even noticing, over the last six years that I have been married, I have slipped into a pattern of holiday baking. While some may label these food habits as my own traditions beginning to emerge for my sweet little family, I see them more as a rut I have fallen into.
There is usually a traditional English trifle, dozens of dark chocolate truffles, Russian Tea Cakes and Gingerbread men for nibbling, shortbread in abundance, and plenty of mincemeat tarts. There is nothing wrong with any of those, but here I am almost 30, asking myself:
"Why am I only making fruitcake now? Why have I never baked a traditional German Stollen or an Italian Panettone? How come I've never attempted a steamed Christmas pudding?"
Heck, I haven't even perfected a Buche de Noel. Shame on me.
Why? Because I'm too busy making my standard fare every holiday season to experiment with something new.
Now, this is quite the 'Ah ha!' moment for me, because every other month of the year I am all about trying new things, so what's been happening around the 25th of December?
I am not big on traditions and never have been. I like surprises, spontaneity and change. Most people can't get over the fact that we don't have a Christmas tree (GASP!!), but that is just one of the Christmas traditions my hubby and I balk at. (OK, it mostly stems from my tree-hugging/save-the-planet upbringing, but don't get me started going down that road...and Santa Claus? Pul-leeze. )
I realize I am on thin ice here so I will lighten up and tell you where I am going with all of this! Starting with my first attempt at Tourtiere last December, and continuing with fruitcake this year, I am starting to branch out with my Christmas cooking and baking and avoid the tendency to always make the same things. It's just something I have to do. I am not belittling your traditions, your family recipes or your blueberry pancakes; I deeply respect all of those dear-to-your-heart patterns, but in my kitchen I have to mix things up a little!
And so I present my Christmas Stollen! Now I have never even eaten Stollen, not to mention made it, but it sounded to good not to try, and so we welcomed a little bit of Germany came into our home as a result. Stollen is a yeast-based fruitcake, full of fruit and nuts, flavored with spices and rum like a classic fruitcake, but more like a challah or a brioche in texture. I didn't know where to start looking for a recipe, (no German relations here, unfortunately) so I used my trusty Joy of Cooking. I always find bread baking deeply satisfying and this stollen did not disappoint. It was SO good, we couldn't stop eating it.
Although I had enjoyed the better part of a loaf with my afternoon tea, when I toasted up a slab for my husband in the evening, I couldn't resist nabbing some off his plate when he wasn't looking. That prompted the "Hey, who stole my stollen?" quote from above, a line Danny was quite tickled with and giggled over for the rest of the night.
So does this mean Christmas Around the World for Under the High Chair? I don't know yet, we'll have to wait and see. It would make me proud if my kids grew up not expecting a certain line-up of dishes around the holidays, but rather were open to other cultural favorites like Paella, Cougnou, Nougat glacé, or Tamales.
If you're in the mood to try something new, this stollen is a great place to start. Just don't turn your back on it--it may disappear!
(Adapted from The Joy of Cooking)
Have all ingredients at room temperature.
6-8 cups all-purpose flour
1 Tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon yeast
1 ½ cups milk, scalded and cooled to 110F
¼ cup dried cherries
¾ cup golden raisins
¾ cup currants
1 ½ cup almonds, chopped
½ cup chopped candied citrus peel
¾ cup sugar
1 ½ cups butter, plus extra for brushing loaves
¾ teaspoon salt
¾ teaspoon grated lemon rind
2 tablespoons rum
In a large bowl, combine warm milk and yeast. Allow to sit 10 minutes until yeast is dissolved. Add 1 cup of the sifted flour and mix to form a sponge. Let sit in a warm place until doubled.
Meanwhile, combine cherries, raisins, almonds and citrus peel. Sprinkle a little of the sifted flour over and combine. Set aside.
When sponge has sufficiently rested, place butter in the bowl of a stand mixer and beat well. Beat in sugar and blend until light and creamy. Add eggs one at a time, followed by the salt, lemon rind and rum. Mix well.
Mix in the fruit and nuts. Add all the sponge and the remaining flour. Knead the dough until smooth and elastic, adding more flour if too sticky.
To shape dough, toss it onto a floured board and divide in two. Pat dough into a rough oval and fold over one third of the dough lengthwise onto the other two thirds. Repeat with remaining dough. Place on baking sheet -one loaf per sheet- and brush with butter. Allow to rise again until almost doubled in bulk.
Preheat oven to 350F.
Bake loaves for about 40 minutes until they are a dark golden brown.