A Traditional Holiday Cake — or Is It Bread?
‘Tis the season for Christmas cakes. You know, like fruitcake, panettone, and Stollen. All three are sweet, and all three typically contain candied or dried fruits. Stollen (like fruitcake) also contains nuts, but Stollen has a more breadlike consistency.
Dresden is synonymous with Stollen, and Dresden Stollen is often quite hefty. Loaves can weigh upwards of 4 pounds, and typically are covered with white icing. But Stollen is baked throughout Germany in all sizes and shapes. And almost every family has its own recipe.
This recipe has been in my family for generations. It probably arrived from Germany with my great-great-grandmother. It’s a bit less rich than the typical Dresden Stollen, and can be baked either in a loaf pan or free form on a baking sheet. It’s delicious plain or dusted with powdered sugar (or iced, if that’s your preference). And although the dough takes several hours to rise, actual hands-on time is only about half an hour if you knead the Stollen in a stand mixer.
The original version of this recipe yielded 8 loaves, and assumed you’d mix and knead the Stollen by hand. I’ve changed those aspects, as you’ll see. Although I enjoy making bread by hand, it’s much easier when you use a stand mixer like a KitchenAid. And who can eat 8 (or even 4) loaves of Stollen?
I’ve updated the recipe so that you can make it in a mixer. I’ve also cut it down to 2 loaves. But you can easily double the recipe (or quadruple it, if that’s your fancy). If you prefer to make your Stollen by hand, I have instructions for that in the Notes.
Stollen will keep for about a week if well wrapped. It also freezes quite well.
For the Sponge:
- 1½ cups milk (you can use water, but the Stollen won’t be as rich and will get stale faster)
- 1½ cups all-purpose flour (preferably unbleached)
- 2¼ teaspoons instant yeast (or 1 package; see Notes for substitutions)
- The Sponge (see above)
- 1 large egg
- ¼ pound (1 stick) butter, melted and cooled
- 1 teaspoon Kosher salt (or ¾ teaspoon regular salt)
- ¾ cup white sugar
- ~3 – 4 cups all-purpose flour (this is in addition to the flour used in the sponge; see Notes & Step 7 in Procedure for why flour measurement isn’t exact)
- 2 cups raisins (or currants, or a mix of the two)
- 1½ - 2 cups walnut pieces (see Notes for discussion on measuring nuts, raisins, and candied fruit)
- 1 cup shredded candied orange, lemon, and citron peels (or substitute candied fruit, which I often do)
- 1 - 2 teaspoons neutral oil (to coat bowl where dough will rest while rising)
For the Sponge:
- There’s a lot of additional information in the Notes, so read them and all the steps in the Procedure before you begin making this recipe.
- Make the sponge the night before you want to bake the Stollen: Add milk, flour, and instant yeast to a bowl (milk can be cold; see Notes). Mix, cover with cling wrap, and allow to sit at room temperature for 2 to 4 hours.
- Then put in the refrigerator overnight. (If you use water instead of milk, you can leave on counter overnight.)
- Remove sponge from refrigerator.
- Melt butter in microwave; allow to cool to room temperature.
- Place raisins in saucepan and add just enough water to cover; place over medium heat; once water comes to a light boil, turn down heat and let raisins simmer while you mix other ingredients. (This step is optional but improves the texture of the raisins; see Notes.)
- Measure and chop walnuts (unless the walnuts you bought are already chopped); measure shredded citrus or candied fruit.
- Crack egg into bowl of stand mixer. Using the paddle, mix briefly.
- To mixer bowl, added melted butter (make sure it has cooled; if it’s hot, it will cook the egg), salt, and sugar. Mix briefly.
- Add the sponge, mix briefly, then add 3 cups of flour, and begin mixing. You’ll almost assuredly need more flour; but the amount will vary depending on humidity, how exactly you measure, etc.
- In a minute or less, the paddle will clog with dough, and the machine will begin to labor. At this point, you need to switch the paddle for a dough hook (you can use a dough hook from the beginning, but it takes longer to incorporate the flour). Test the dough at this point. Is it really sticky? If so, add another half cup of flour. Knead the dough with the dough hook for 5 minutes (set a timer).
- Meanwhile, drain the raisins and run cold water over them to cool.
- After 5 minutes of kneading, add the raisins, walnuts, and candied citrus or fruit. If the dough seems too wet (see Notes), add another quarter cup of flour.
- Knead for another 5 minutes. Again, set a timer to make sure you don’t over-knead (this can happen with a mixer, although it’s almost impossible when you knead by hand).
- When the timer goes off, dump the dough onto a silicone mat or floured surface (no need to flour the silicone). Knead the dough briefly to judge its texture. Is it slightly sticky and clinging to your fingers somewhat? That’s OK. Really sticky? Add a bit more flour. Too dry? Sprinkle with just a bit of water (for more on judging dough texture, see Notes). As you knead the dough, some of the fruit or nuts will pop out – just stick them back in. When the texture seems right, mold the dough into a rounded lump (I’d say ball, but it’s not going to be perfectly spherical).
- Get out a large bowl in which you can place the dough while it rises (the dough will double in size). Add a teaspoon or two of oil to the empty bowl and swirl to coat the interior.
- Place the dough in the bowl top down, swirl to coat all sides with oil, and end with the top of the dough in the up position. Cover bowl with cling wrap and leave in a draft-free spot until the dough doubles in size (usually 3 to 4 hours).
- When the dough has doubled in size, dump it onto your silicone mat or floured surface, and punch it down (you’re trying to deflate all the carbon dioxide gas that has formed while the dough was rising). Knead it briefly. Then cut the dough in half (I use a bench knife, but a kitchen knife works, too). Shape each half into a rough log, then press into a buttered loaf pan (you can also use cooking spray to coat the pan). Cover with cling wrap. If you prefer to bake your Stollen free-form rather than in a loaf pan, shape each dough half into a rough oval, and place on a baking pan lined with a silicone baking mat or parchment paper, and cover with cling wrap.
- Allow dough to rise in a draft-free place until it has approximately doubled (at least an hour, usually more like 2 hours). About half an hour before the dough has risen completely, preheat oven to 350 degrees (see Notes).
- Bake until done, about 45 - 55 minutes (may take up to an hour). What is “done”? When the interior temperature of the loaf reaches 190 degrees (measure with an instant-read thermometer). Or when the loaf releases freely from the pan, and sounds “hollow” when you thump the bottom. If the top of the Stollen starts to brown too much, you can tent some aluminum foil over it to retard browning.
- Remove loaves from baking pans and cool. When cool, coat with powdered sugar or icing, if you wish. Enjoy plain or (if not covered in powdered sugar or icing) toasted with butter.
- If you don’t have a stand mixer like a KitchenAid, you might want to put it on your wish list. Although expensive, they last forever (ours is almost 30 years old and is still going strong).
- If you prefer to make this recipe by hand, the Procedure is largely the same: Make the sponge. Beat egg in a bowl with a wooden spoon; add cooled melted butter, sugar, and salt, then beat. Then add the sponge and additional flour until it’s hard to beat the dough with the spoon. Turn dough out on silicone mat or floured surface, and begin kneading, adding flour until you reach the proper consistency. Knead by hand for about 10 minutes, then add the raisins, nuts, and candied citrus or fruit. Knead another 10 minutes (20 minutes total), then proceed with Step 13 of the Procedure.
- Judging how much flour to add to the dough is something you have to learn by experience. When kneading by hand and adding flour, the old rule of thumb was to add flour until the dough stopped sticking to your hands. However, in my opinion Stollen (and other bread) is better if the dough is slightly wetter. When I make Stollen in the mixer, the dough sticks a bit to my hands in the brief time I knead it by hand in Step 12. The dough is sticky enough that it would be annoying to knead by hand for 20 minutes; but for a minute or two, no big deal. So when you’re adding flour in Steps 7 & 8, feel the dough. Stop adding flour when it’s still somewhat sticky. You can always add a bit more if necessary when you briefly knead the dough by hand in Step 12 (if you do need to add more, it will probably be less than half a cup; and you will only have to knead for 2 or 3 minutes until the flour is mixed into the dough).
- I really like instant yeast, so that’s what I specify in this recipe. You don’t need to “proof” it – you can just mix it in with the ingredients. You can also use cold ingredients – the yeast will still do its thing. If you buy instant yeast in bulk (it’s available in 1-pound packages) you can store it in an airtight container in the freezer for a couple of years.
- Alternatively, you can also probably use active dry yeast or fresh yeast cakes with this recipe (the original recipe calls for yeast cakes). Just substitute equivalent amounts for the instant yeast (one package of active dry yeast or 1 cake of fresh yeast). Please note: I have not tested this 2-loaf recipe with either active dry yeast or fresh yeast cakes. But in the past when I have made half of the original recipe (the 4-loaf version) by hand, I used active dry yeast, and it has worked well. When using active dry yeast, you generally need to warm the milk, add the yeast, stir, and wait a few minutes before adding the flour. (It’s much easier to use instant yeast.)
- The original recipe didn’t call for the sponge to rise overnight. Instead, it specified letting the sponge rise for just a couple of hours, and then proceeding with the recipe. Because this is such a rich dough, however, you’ll get a much better rise if you give the sponge more time to develop (i.e., overnight).
- There’s some leeway in the measurements for the raisins, nuts, and candied citrus or fruit. You want this to total at least 4 cups, and you can easily go up to 6 cups. If you prefer more of one ingredient than another, adjust accordingly.
- Simmering plumps and softens raisins (which otherwise can be hard and dry). It really does make a difference. I learned this trick from Mrs. Kitchen Riffs, who read it years ago in a cookbook (she’s forgotten which one) by the great Maida Heatter.
- Some recipes call for soaking the raisins and candied fruit in rum overnight. That’s not in the tradition of my family’s Stollen, but I think it’s a terrific idea. In the future, I’ll work on that.
- The original recipe called for shredded candied citrus (orange, lemon, and citron peels). My mother typically used candied fruit (sometimes called “fruit cake mix”), and I often use that. But the Stollen is good if you use either candied fruit or candied citrus peel.
- Dough rises faster when it’s warmer. At this time of year, the daytime temperature at the Kitchen Riffs household is around 65 degrees F. At that temperature, the dough takes a bit over 4 hours for the first rise, and around 2 hours for the second. If you have a cool house and want to speed things up, you can turn your oven on for a couple of minutes, open the oven door so most of the heat escapes (you don’t want the oven to be much above 80 degrees), then put the dough in to rise.
Because the dough takes time to rise, making Stollen is basically an all-day affair. But it’s largely “unattended” time, so you can be doing something else while the yeast is at work. And Stollen is so delicious, the time and effort is worth it.
When I was young, my mother always made Stollen on Christmas Eve, and it came out of the oven around dinner time. Of course, after sniffing the delicious baking aroma, who could resist? So warm Stollen was always the star of our Christmas Eve dinner.
While Stollen is great hot from the oven, it’s equally good the next day. And it’s tasty at any meal – breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Or as a nice snack.
Or, for that matter, any time you want to impress your family and guests with your brilliant baking skills.
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