A Slice of Holiday Bread
by Cynthia Peters
Millions of people around the world celebrate Christmas and the food traditions surrounding the occasion. In particular, many countries are tied with a common bond of preparing speciality breads for the holiday season. One of the most popular and recognizable Christmas breads is Stollen. Its origin dates back to the 15th century in Germany. It was crafted to emulate the infant Jesus wrapped in a blanket. Today, it can also be referred to as Christstollen. The original form was much simpler. A basic loaf of flour, yeast, water and oil. Later versions added butter and spices, but were banned by the church. The current form has elevated considerably with the addition of sweet ingredients as candied fruit, raisins, nuts, marzipan and icing sugar. Rum is also popular. Dresden Stollen has a special seal on its surface, designating the loaf as baked officially by one of a select group of 150 bakers.
In Prince Edward County, we have two notable bakers that pride themselves on this delicious treat. Peter Grendel of The Pastry House in Picton has been baking this bread for years. Regulars place orders weeks ahead of time to ensure they have enough for their holiday gift giving.
Henry Willis of Humble Bread is a big fan of fruit breads and enjoys crafting these loaves and baking them is his wood fired oven, just north of Bloomfield. His sour dough version, all naturally leavened, is packed with rum soaked raisins and almonds, candied citrus peel and a generous log of marzipan in the middle. It’s a labour of love as the first proof is 10 hours and then another 18 hour rise before baking. This slow rise along with the organic ingredients and a topping of melted butter and icing sugar, give this loaf a rich tasting flavour. The loaf weighs in at around two and a half pounds and can last till the end of January stored in parchment paper at room temperature. Orders can be placed directly through their website.
One of the “not so familiar” Christmas breads that was a tradition in my family was Armenian Gatah. While there are many versions depending on what region of Armenia one was from, my mother adopted a savory rather than the traditional sweet variety that she learned from my grandmother. Gatah was only baked during the holiday season in our home, traditionally it was baked for the Christian holiday, Candlemas (Presentation of Jesus at the temple) on February 2nd. Our version can be compared to a heavy coffee cake, but with the taste of a croissant. This was created by making a “koritz” for the centre – a paste of butter and flour with a texture similar to a stiff roux. Sometimes we added a few tablespoons of tahini, giving it a nice sesame background. We also made ours much smaller for individual servings with a sprinkling of sesame seeds on top. Normally, Gatah is made a foot in diameter and can be filled with the addition of ground nuts.
Moving northward to Sweden, one of their Christmas breads can be found in the shape of sweet buns called Lussekatter. These yellow beauties get their glow from saffron. Sweeter versions can be found on tables in England and the Netherlands. Lussekatter is usually made with raisins and baked in the traditional shape of a reversed s-shape. They are eaten at Advent and Saint Lucia Day (December 13). This day is also known as the Festival of Light and was started in the early 18th century.
Traditionally, a young girl is chosen to wear a special white robe with a long red sash and a crown of lite candles. She leads a procession of children in the celebration of Saint Lucia and these saffron buns are served to all in attendance and everyday following up to shortly after Christmas.
So how did saffron become a key ingredient of these buns in Sweden?
The history of the saffron trade was unique as the spice could be grown all over Europe and beyond. And was readily available. With the difficulties though of harvesting, saffron was and still is today, one of the world’s most expensive ingredients.
In our area, Swedish born Jens Koberg of The Old Third winery, has been baking these buns for family and friends for many years. His own recipe noted below, also incorporates ricotta cheese. He suggests serving them warm with your favourite hot beverage.
Whether bought or baked at home, the smell and taste of hand crafted speciality breads for the holidays are a tasty tradition for all to enjoy.
Swedish Saffron Buns
¼ cup raisins
¼ cup dark rum
2 tablespoons dry yeast
2 cups milk
1 gram saffron strands
1 cup ricotta cheese
¾ cup sugar
½ teaspoon salt
600 grams unbleached white flour
100 grams unsalted butter, room temperature
1. Soak the raisins in the rum.
2. In a small sauce pan, add ½ cup of the milk along with the saffron. Stir and heat up to just below boiling to extract colour and flavour of the saffron. Let cool.
3. In a medium sauce pan, add the rest of the milk and heat to 37C. Remove from the heat and add the yeast. Let stand for 10 minutes.
4. In a mixer, add the milk/yeast and saffron along with the ricotta cheese, sugar and salt. Blend well. Slowly add the flour while mixing on slow. When well incorporated, spoon in the soft butter and mix until smooth. Cover with a kitchen towel and let rest 40-50 minutes.
5. Preheat oven to 450F
6. Cut dough in half. Cover one half and roll the other half into a long rectangle, about 6” wide and ½” thick.
7. Cut into thin strips and roll into shape. Place on a baking tray, add the raisins, cover, and let rest for another 30 minutes. Repeat with the second half of the dough.
8. Brush with whisked egg. Bake in oven 7-10 minutes or until golden brown.