Peek into my kitchen this holiday season and you’ll likely find me elbows high in pillowy bread dough. In my family, nothing says Christmas more than the warm scent of baking bread. From Belgian cougnou to Italian panettone and sundry treats in between, we bake, give and eat not iced sugar cookies or gingerbread men but aromatic loaves of fruit- and nut-filled yeast breads.
If you’ve ever shopped in a European-style bakery or holiday market, you know that my tradition is not unique. Across Europe people bake sweet, sumptuous yeast breads. Many of them have religious significance. Such is the case with the Christmas specialties of Belgium and Germany.
Yeast breads vary from nation to nation
In the French-speaking region of Belgium known as Wallonia, people consume cougnou or “the bread of Jesus.” To make cougnou, bakers join together three balls of sugar- , egg- and raisin-enriched dough; these pieces are said to represent the head, body and legs of the Christ child. Glazed with egg yolks and milk and then baked, the resulting bread resembles a swaddled baby.
In Belgium, cougnou is often given as a holiday or hostess gift. You’ll find this festive bread at bakeries and Christmas markets throughout the season.
I grew up eating a similar treat from Dresden, Germany. With its oblong shape, tapered ends, folded center and liberal dusting of confectioner’s sugar, stollen, like cougnou, resembles baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothing. No doubt this is why it’s sometimes referred to as Christstollen.
A favorite at German Advent markets, stollen includes plump raisins, currants, candied citron and chopped almonds. Bakers there usually add a splash of dark rum, brandy or lemon juice.
At Calico Restaurant and Patisserie in Rhinebeck, N.Y., pastry chef/owner Leslie Heinsohn-Balassone includes a few special steps for making moist, flavorful stollen. Along with soaking her raisins overnight, she runs a strip of marzipan down her bread, imbuing it with a luscious almond taste. She also uses both cream cheese and butter in her dough, giving it an even more velvety texture.
Holiday Baking Links
For those first-time stollen bakers, the pastry chef offers some professional guidance. “Use a lot of flour on your surface — preferably wooden — and keep trying until you find the perfect recipe,” says Heinsohn-Balassone, whom Zagat rated as the “best pastry chef of the Hudson Valley.” Sage advice when it comes to making holiday breads.
Dark and pear-flecked hutzelbrot lacks the spiritual tie-in that stollen and cougnou possess. Favored in southern Germany, this dense bread has a standard loaf shape and a top crust that may be scored in the shape of a leaf. Beneath its dark crust lies an abundance of dried pears as well as dried apricots and figs, prunes, currants and almonds or hazelnuts. Spiced with cinnamon, cloves, ginger and cardamom or aniseed, it’s redolent with the scents of the season.
Custom dictates that you save your hutzelbrot until Dec. 24. You then slice it and consume it with a glass of wine or punch. That’s one tradition that I invariably break. With bread that bold, fruity and delicious in my house, you can bet that I’m cutting into it long before Christmas Eve.
The temptation likewise exists with panettone. A specialty of Milan, Italy, the rich, high-rising bread varies in size from a convenient, individual serving to a loaf large enough to feed a dozen. Shaped like an oversized mushroom, this Italian treat usually contains raisins, candied citron and orange peels, lemon and orange zests, and generous amounts of butter, eggs and sugar.
Unlike the other breads, panettone shows up not only at Christmastime but also at Easter and other festive events. How it came to be associated with the holidays remains a mystery. So, too, does its origin. Some speculate that a nobleman fell in love with and invented this bread for a poor baker’s daughter. Depending upon the source, the nobleman dubbed it panettone, “Toni’s bread,” in honor of himself, the poor baker or the object of his affections.
In the Netherlands krentenbrood, or currant bread, is likewise consumed at Christmas and Easter. In a land where dark rye bread was once the norm, this white, spiced and fruit-studded bread was historically considered a luxury item saved for special occasions. In Finland, however, families opt for rye bread at their holiday tables. Their rich, rye joululimppu also contains molasses, orange zest and fennel, anise or caraway seeds.
Whether made with white or rye flour or baked in the shape of a swaddled infant, plump mushroom or an oblong loaf, these fragrant breads evoke the holiday season. They’ll bring a taste of Christmas to your kitchen every year.
Cherry-Almond-White Chocolate Panettone
Makes 1 loaf
½ cup plus 1 tablespoon dried cherries
¼ cup cranberry juice, warmed
1 package dry active yeast
½ cup milk, warmed
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon sugar
2 large eggs
4 egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla
⅓ cup sugar
½ teaspoon salt
2 cups all-purpose flour plus a little extra for dusting the work surface
3 tablespoons butter, softened and cut into chunks
½ cup blanched almonds, toasted and chopped
⅔ cup white chocolate chips
1. In a small bowl, mix together the dried cherries and cranberry juice.
2. In another bowl add the milk to the yeast. Once the yeast has dissolved, add the flour and sugar. Stir together until well combined. Cover the starter with a sheet of plastic wrap and, placing it in a warm spot, allow it to rise until it doubles in size, about two hours.
3. Grease a large mixing bowl as well as a panettone mold or 24-ounce coffee can. (If you do not have either a mold or an empty coffee can, line a small, round, buttered baker with buttered parchment paper — the paper should be roughly 6 inches high.)
4. Whisk together the eggs, yolks, vanilla and sugar.
5. Add the starter, flour and salt to the liquids and mix together. Once the ingredients are incorporated, place the dough on a floured work surface and knead for five minutes. Add chunks of the butter to the dough and knead it to incorporate. Continue to knead the dough until the butter is well combined.
6. Form the dough into a ball.
7. Drain and pat the cherries dry.
8. Flatten the dough, then add a third of the cherries, almonds and white chocolate chips. Fold the dough over and knead the ingredients into the dough. Repeat the process until all the cherries, nuts and chips have been added.
9. Form the dough into a ball. Place it in the greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap and allow it to rise for 1½ hours.
10. Punch down the dough, place it in the buttered panettone mold or buttered coffee can and cover it with plastic wrap. Allow one final rise, about 1 hour.
11. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
12. Remove the plastic wrap and insert the panettone into the preheated oven. Bake for 45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack.
Top photo: Cherry-Almond-White Chocolate Panettone. Credit: Kathy Hunt