This time of the year provides home bakers with many delicious traditions to revel in, and Christmas breads are not the least of them. There is something universal about bread. For instance the German stollen which is a yeast-raised loaves luxuriously flavourful yet modesty sweet, feauter prominently in culinary cultures all over Europe, where they are a relished element of holiday celebrations. Christmas breads convey deep-rooted symbolism-religious of course, but also earthy. Plump loaves, made by hand, embody the abundance that is hoped for in the year to come as well as the joy of sharing with loved ones and those in need. They also reinforce family ties and traditions, as treasured recipes and rituals are passed down from one generation to the next. Though not at all difficult to make, German Christmas breads do require a measure of patience as the dough is kneaded, shaped, and left to rise. Yet this quality is very thing that invites the baker to slow down, contemplate, and savour the experience. And what better time of the year to do so?
The history of stollen dates back to 15th century Dresden, where the first German Christmas market was held (a festival still honors it each year) the bread has evolved since then gradually becoming richer and sweeter, for the present days the stollen is full of dried fruit, almonds even with marzepan and with lots of spices. The breads are oblong shaped, symbolizing a swaddled infant and are served on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day but they also constitute ideal centerpieces for brunches afternoon teas and desserts all through the holiday period. They also make beautiful, heartfelt gifts, and because they keep well, you can prepare them well ahead of time and set them aside until you give them away.
Christopsomo means in Greek the bread of Christ. This traditional bread is only eaten when the Christmas fast is broken thus on Christmas Eve. The rich round loaf bread draws its distinctive licorice-like flavour from mastic gum, the dried resin of Mediterranean cherry tree but it can be scented with wine soaked figs, anise and orange as well and sometimes also contains such ingredients as nuts, raisins, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and mastiihi, a dried pine resin. However the baking process is the same everywhere: after the dough rises top, it’s coiled into a snail shape. Then the dough is sprinkled with sesame seeds, which puffs into a dome when baked. Some families decorate the bread with strips of dough that form a cross, or X. The Greek letter X or Chi is the first letter of the Greek word for Christ and was used as an early abbreviation. Hence the word Xmas….however sometimes dough shapes representing initials, birth dates, ages and aspects of the family’s life and profession are added. In some regions in Greece the Xmas bread is served with honey on Christmas Eve and traditionally families leave pieces of bread on the table believing that Christ will come and eat them during the night.
Till today the preparation of Christopomo is considered a sacred tradition in Greek- Orthodox homes, and the care with which it is made is said to ensure the well-being of the home in the year to come. In earlier times, Greek cooks baked large quantities of bread to last for ten to fifteen days, so baking just one or two loaves of Christopsomo the night before Christmas had special significance. The cook would begin by crossing him/herself before starting baking!
Italian emigrants have popularized Panettone all over the world, but the bread originated from Milan. The name is thought to be a contraction of pane–bread and Tonio, the name of a poor baker who, according to folklore either used the bread to woo a young lady or to pay his daughter’s dowry. Nuts, candied fruit, and, in more contemporary incarnations, chocolate chunks are folded into dough.
There is no Christmas in Hungary without Beigli -the Poppy seed and minced Walnut roll, one with each filling, are always served together at Christmas Eve. The combination is known as mákos és diós (poppy seed and walnut). However, in some English language cookbooks there may not be mention of the walnut filling, as if poppy seed were the only filling used. Some other non-Hungarian food writers combine the poppy seeds and walnuts together in one filling, (oh my God) because Poland and Czech culture have intermingled, immigrants to America sometimes use the term “Kolache” to describe it.
The dough is made of flour, sugar, egg yolk, milk or sour cream and butter, and yeast. The dough may be flavored with lemon or orange zest or rum. The poppy seed filling contains ground poppy seeds, raisins, butter or milk, sugar or honey, rum and vanilla. Sometimes sugar is substituted for a tablespoon of apricot jam, which is one of the most popular jams used in the Hungarian cuisine.
The walnut roll filling contains raisins, rum, butter or milk, lemon rind and chopped walnuts. This filling may be spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg, clove or vanilla. The dough is at first quite heavy, stiff and dry, but with kneading and resting becomes very elastic and strong. It is rolled out into a large sheet, thick or thin depending on taste. One aesthetic principle is that the dough and filling layers should be equal thicknesses. Another is that more layers are better. The filling is spread over the dough, which is then rolled into a long cylinder or log. Traditional recipes usually involve brushing the log with the egg white left over from the yolk used in the dough. Other recipes use different washes, or an icing added after baking. The unbaked log is gently transferred to a sheet pan, left to rise, then baked until golden brown.
The poppy seed filling is a paste of ground poppy seeds, milk, butter, sugar and/or honey, often with additional flavorings such as lemon zest and juice. It may have raisins. The walnut filling is a paste of ground walnuts, milk, butter, sugar, and raisins, often with additional flavorings such as coffee or orange zest.
It is a popular cuisine in other parts of Central Europe, Eastern Europe and in Israel as well. It is commonly eaten at Christmas and Easter time. It is traditional in several cuisines, including the Hungarian cuisine (beigli or bejgli) Russian cuisine (bulochki), Polish cuisine (makowiec), Lithuanian cuisine (aguonų vyniotinis), Croatian cuisine (makovnjača, orehnjača), Romanian cuisine (cozonac), and Austrian cuisine (Mohnkuchen or Mohnstriezel).