09 November 2008
One year, I almost missed Christmas.
Not 'to miss' as in 'to long for', but as in 'to overlook'. Seriously.
I was working in Pretoria, South Africa at that time, and Christmas in the southern hemisphere is something entirely different to what I had been used to. Christmas is the hottest time of the year down there, the sun is blazing, and when you're not in the pool or at the brai, you're watching cricket all weekend long.
Very, very different.
I only realized that it would be Christmas in a few weeks when suddenly the young ladies who were handing out flyers at the mall started wearing skimpy outfits in red with white fur trimmings. Instead of their usual skimpy outfits, that is.
Most stunning was the fact that I hadn't felt like Christmas was just around the corner. I love this season of the year, the buildup, the special food, everything. Sure, I am happy once all is over, but that doesn't keep me from doing all this over again come next year.
So, I decided, something had to be done to get me 'into the mood'. Home decoration was out of the question because a) it wasn't really my home and b) palm trees and strelizias just don't give themselves to seasonal motives.
So I would cook something, which always is a fine remedy to almost everything. It had to be seasonal, very German, resistant to heat and local ingredients.
In the end, I came up with the idea of making Stollen myself. Stollen is a traditional German christmas cake, with a lot of dried fruits and icing sugar and mostly a rather dry and industrial affair. But very 'christmassy' and quite German, so I decided I'd try.
The ingredients were not too hard to come by, and actually, it turned out much better than their store-bought 'originals'.
Like the Pfefferkuchen, Stollen has to rest some weeks before they taste right. But in the end, they are a fragrant, aromatic and despite all the icing-sugar susprisingly un-sweet affair that just screams to be enjoyed with a huge cup of black, unsweetened tea on a dark and rainy afternoon.
Though, as I can confirm from my own experience, they taste just as good poolside in the shade of some wild strelizia trees.
(makes four medium loafs)
1 kg all-purpose flour
1/2 l milk, lukewarm
500g butter, softened
1 sachet dry yeast
150g raisins (Zante currants)
150g candied orange peel
75g candied lemon peel (succade)
200 ml dark Rum
150g almonds, chopped
zest of one lemon, finely shopped
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
1/2 teaspoon macis
1 teaspoon cinnamon
a generous pinch of salt
1 flask bitter almond essence
250g icing sugar
One day before baking:
Dissolve the dry yeast in the milk, leave to activate for a moment. In a large bowl, mix the flour, butter, sugar and milk until well blended. Cover with clingwrap or a large plate and leave in a cool place over night.
A pound of butter is a lot, I know. But this is one of the reasons Stollen taste as they do, and it is a once-in-a-year thing, so just go for it.
In another bowl, mix the dried fruits with the rum. Leave to soak over night, stir once or twice to incorporate as much liquid as possible.
Again, lots of rum, I know. But you will want some moisture in the final cake, and this is a perfect way to smuggle it past the actual baking.
Day of baking:
Take the dough somewhere warm (like, the kitchen) knead thoroughly and leave to raise for about another hour or two.
The dough will have hardly risen over night, both because it is quite heavy with all that butter and it was stored cool. But the long fermentation helps both the taste and the stability of the dough. And as soon as the yeast gets somewhere warm, it'll work like a charm.
When the dough has risen, add the spices and the almonds and knead until well incorporated.
The bitter almond essence in Germany comes in small flasks containing about one and a half teaspoon of heavily aromatic oil. On the package, it states that one flask is sufficient for about 500g of flour, so if your essence comes in a different form, please adapt accordingly.
Add the fruits, and knead briefly to incorporate.
There should be very little to no liquid left of the Rum. The raisins are quite soft now, and make ugly brown smears in the dough if squashed, so be gentle.
Quarter the dough, and form four rectangular loaves. Cover with a kitchen towel and leave to raise for another half hour.
Traditionally, the loaves have a lenghtwise ridge, as if the dough had been folded over. Nice, but entirely unnecessary. Especially as I still have yet to figure out why in some years, the dough keeps shape nicely, and in others just runs away. This year, it rose exceptionally well, but turned almost circular in complete ignorance of whatever efforts I had put in shaping it.
Bake in the pre-heated oven at about 160°C for about an hour, until a stick inserted comes out clean.
They will be covered in icing-sugar anyway, so it's fine if they come out a little pale rather than scorched. Also, I usually make two medium loafs and four tiny ones as gifts. If you make smaller ones, they will be done much faster.
Melt the butter, and leave to cool for a moment.
When the Stollen are out of the oven, leave to cool on a rack. While they are still warm, brush them with the liquid butter, using up all of it.
I am no one to complain about a lot of fat in cooking, but this is the one moment in the year I regularly cringe. I mean, seriously, that much butter in the dough already and now you SOAK it with butter? Yes, you do. Yes, it is cringe-inducing. And yes, you'll love it. Once in a year, you can do it.
Take the warm and butter-soaked Stollen and cover in a thick layer of icing-sugar, about a centimeter or more.
Cover tightly and leave to rest at least four weeks before serving.
I use both a layer of cling-wrap and then tinfoil to wrap them securely. During the rest, the moisture in the cake will even out - meaning that if there is some succade or a raisin close to the icing-sugar, it'll leave amazigly unsightly brown blotches in the sugary crust. That's ugly but fine, as it shows you've been working with natural ingredients. And it's nothing yet another layer of icing-sugar can't fix.
The Stollen keep very well, tradtionally until Easter. I have even found one in the back of our larder one year in late August, and it was still perfectly fine.