There are certain things Germans do better than everyone else. Not incurring massive amounts of public debt is one of them. Christmas baking is another.
Though I have friends living in Germany who rhapsodize over lebkuchen, the cakey gingerbread cookie with roots in Nuremberg—and though freshly made springerle can be pretty heavenly, too—I’ve always had a soft spot for stollen, mostly because it’s supposed to resemble the infant Jesus but actually looks less like a human baby than a shoddily manufactured white brick. Plus, it’s delicious.
A buttery, fruit-filled, sugar-coated loaf, stollen is about as rich and dense as yeast bread can get—and therein is a potential pitfall. Some years I have been disappointed by stollen dough that did not rise at all, thanks to amounts of melted butter and booze-soaked nuts and raisins so copious that they suffocated the yeast. Making stollen as luxurious as possible without dooming it to leadenness is a tricky balancing act—especially since I, and most other home bakers I know, have no patience for recipes that call for proofing the yeast in a sponge and letting the dough rise several times.
But there is a solution: Let the dough rise once without any fruit and nuts in it—during which time, conveniently, you can let the fruit and nuts soften in alcohol—and then knead in the fruit and nuts, shape the dough into loaves, and let it rise only once more before baking. This way, the yeast gets a head start on fermenting without the extra weight of fruit and nuts—but be warned that this is not a dough that will double in size while rising. Nor is it the world’s most compliant dough; there’s no avoiding sticky fingers while you’re shaping the loaves. But the resulting texture is moist as all get out, with a lovely buttery orange flavor, thanks to orange liqueur and, well, lots and lots of butter.
But you’re nowhere near done when the loaves come out of the oven—in fact, the most important step is the last, which I learned when the New York Times’s steadfast Melissa Clark wrote about her quest to find an old-fashioned stollen recipe a couple of years ago. The secret to incredible stollen, it turns out, is not one but two thick coatings of sugar. First, brush the warm loaves generously with butter. Then sprinkle over a generous quantity of granulated sugar mixed with a little ground ginger. (The sugar and butter take the abrasive edge off of the ginger, much as the backup singers on Christmas in the Heart do to Bob Dylan’s voice.) Finally, after the loaves have cooled, sprinkle over an even more generous quantity of powdered sugar. After a day or so, the sugars and butter will have hardened into an irresistibly sweet, candy-like shell that not only tastes amazing but also keeps the heart of the stollen from drying out.
The biggest mistake people make with stollen, I’ve found, is not making it at all. This Christmas, don’t let that happen to you.
Yield: 2 to 4 loaves (24 to 32 servings)
Time: About 6 hours, mostly unattended, plus time to let the stollen sit before serving
1 cup golden raisins
1 cup dried cherries
1 cup chopped crystallized ginger
1 cup sliced or slivered almonds
⅔ cup orange liqueur (like Grand Marnier or Cointreau)
1¾ cups (3½ sticks) butter
⅓ cup milk, preferably not skim
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon grated orange zest
2¼ teaspoons instant yeast or one ¼-ounce packet active dry yeast
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Oil or butter for greasing the bowl and baking sheet
1½ cups powdered sugar
1. Combine the raisins, cherries, crystallized ginger, almonds, and orange liqueur in a medium bowl. Stir to combine, cover, and let sit at room temperature while you make the dough or overnight if time allows.
2. Meanwhile, put 1 cup (2 sticks) of the butter and the milk in a small saucepan over medium-low heat and cook until the butter melts (or combine the butter and milk in a microwave-safe bowl and microwave in 30-second intervals until the butter melts). Combine the flour, ¼ cup of the sugar, the orange zest, the yeast, 1 teaspoon of the ground ginger, the cardamom, the salt, and the nutmeg in a large bowl. When the butter mixture cools to 100°F—about the same temperature as the inside of your wrist—add it to the flour mixture and stir with the dough-hook attachment of a stand mixer or by hand. Lightly beat together the eggs and vanilla and stir them into the dough.
3. Knead the dough with the dough-hook attachment of a stand mixer or by hand until it feels smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. Grease a large bowl (it’s fine to use the same one you mixed the dough in), add the dough, and turn it over to coat it lightly with oil or butter. Cover the bowl with a clean kitchen towel or plastic wrap, put it in a warm place, and let the dough rise for 1½ to 2 hours.
4. Punch down the dough and add the raisin mixture. Knead the dough in the bowl with the dough-hook attachment of a stand mixer or by hand until the fruit, nuts, and ginger are evenly incorporated. (The dough will be sticky.) Grease a baking sheet and shape the dough, as well as you can, into 2 to 4 long, oval loaves on the baking sheet. Cover the baking sheet with a clean kitchen towel or plastic wrap, put it in a warm place, and let the loaves rise for 1 hour.
5. Heat the oven to 350°F. Uncover the baking sheet and bake until the loaves are golden brown, about 35 minutes (for smaller loaves) to 1 hour (for larger loaves). When the stollen is done, melt the remaining ¾ cup (1½ sticks) butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat (or in a microwave-safe bowl in the microwave). Brush the tops and sides of the stollen with the butter while the loaves are still warm. Combine the remaining ¾ cup sugar and 1 teaspoon ground ginger and sprinkle over the stollen. Cool thoroughly. Sprinkle the powdered sugar all over the stollen, pressing lightly to help it stick. Wrap each loaf in foil or plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature for at least 1 day before serving.