-Jay Livingston/Ray Evans 1951
Strings of little white fairy lights twinkling like a million stars over our heads, swags of gaily-colored bulbs dancing in the darkness, our hearts burst to overflowing with the joy of the season. Silly Santas crawling up the sides of buildings and warm, fuzzy snowmen grinning at us with their impossible charcoal grins, inviting us inside innumerable cozy shops filled with red and gold and green and everything we don’t need but so want! Candy shop windows, “les vitrines des confiseries”, elegantly decorated, display boxes of chocolates tied up in gold ribbon, crystal dishes cradling jewel-like bonbons in every color, the romance of Christmas wrapped in tissue paper and dusted with icing sugar. The dream of snow floating down outside the apartment windows is the most exciting thing for this Florida girl, a Florida girl still after all of these years. Snow still excites me like a child on Christmas morning stepping gingerly down the stairs, peeking nervously around the corner to spy the tree and seeing that Santa did indeed, really bring brightly wrapped gifts and place them under the sparkling fir. Holiday music, not so much “Silent Night” or “Little Drummer Boy” as “Christmas Wrapping”, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa” or “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” piped in all over town, in stores and on the street, like having a joyous, sing-along-able personal soundtrack to my life.
And the food! Thanksgiving slides rambunctiously into Christmas, a bumpy sleigh ride, and comes knocking on our door, her arms brimming with a cornucopia of delightful seasonal treats: pumpkin and apple pies galore, cranberry relish, cranberry muffins, cranberry-pecan pinwheels and orange-cranberry sweet bread, turkey stuffed with cornbread stuffing and sweet potato casseroles dotted with tiny marshmallows. And those worldly delicacies like Figgy Pudding, Bûche de Nöel, fruitcakes and Panettone. And Christmas cookies tumbling out of the oven batch after batch, butter and spice, gingerbread and chocolate, decorated with frosting and glaze and all kinds of colored sugary things filling the house with that warm, homey, inviting scent of the holidays.
My parents, like JP and I many years later, may have offered us presents once or twice on this holiday that we didn’t celebrate, allowing us the same joy and surprise of waking up and finding something special waiting for each of us as awaited our friends, a fleeting idea, gone the next year as quickly as it had come this one. But as we had no tree, the stuffed tiger that I remember finding one year and that I grew very quickly to love was sitting calmly and silently on the bench in our bare living room next to the other kids’ toys all on their lonesome. We knew there was no Christmas, no Santa Claus, but we loved the gifts all the same. Drawn to the holiday sparkle like moths to a bright light, we would wander the neighborhood early Sunday mornings when the streets were empty, bright and chilly December mornings, excitedly pointing out the wreaths tacked to all the front doors, the Rudolphs prancing on chimney-less rooftops. Or Santas in red velvet cap and brightly flowered swim trunks, that old Florida favorite. Nighttimes we would run through the yards to the street behind our house and see the magic lit up, pale blue and milky white lights creating a mystical haze around the palm trees, the luminaries lined majestically up and down the block, the eerie glow drawing us into a warm embrace. Waiting breathlessly, hands folded like good, patient children, for the neighbors to come over and invite us to help decorate their lovely, elegant tree, all glass balls and feathery angels, plump red bows and shimmering tinsel.
Years later, Christmas in Milan with our two boys, a small tree as the one concession to living in this very religious country and to my in-laws, decorated with handmade treasures; husband and boys spending a Saturday collecting whole walnuts and other collectibles from their nature walk, then stopping in the specialty shop and buying a plastic tube filled with escargot shells then spray painting everything gold and stringing them up on our first, our only, tree. The magical aura of Christmas in Milan, icy nights wandering downtown enveloped in a ghostly mist, Milan a picture postcard of Christmas beauty. We see steam rising from the huge steel drums gracing every street corner, the tantalizing, wintry scent of roasted chestnuts luring us over and we buy a small paper cone filled with these seasonal treats, their earthy, woodsy sweetness better than candy canes or chocolate Santas, the toasty paper warming our gloved hands.
Although I don’t celebrate Christmas, I revel in the everyday contemporary rituals, the glorious food, the lights and decorations adorning every shop window, street lamp and front door, the cheerful music that swirls around me everywhere and the goodwill that fills us all. Look out your window or stroll down the street and feel the excitement in the air, the tingle of excitement that sparks that special holiday electricity that zips through each of us, the smells and the sounds, the childlike wonder and we believe in Santa Claus once again. And I often wonder why we can’t keep the lights and decorations up all year ‘round, always fill the streets with heart-warming, uplifting music and keep this wonderful seasonal spirit in us always.
And, of course, tis the season to offer gifts to friends and family, heartfelt, homemade gifts of cinnamon and spice, cranberries and citrus, sweets to delight and bring holiday cheer. I adore cooking and baking for others and Hannukah and Christmas are the perfect holidays for giving gifts from my kitchen. I surround myself with the warmth and the smells of Christmas baking, my kitchen infused with the fragrant melody of cinnamon and yeast, chocolate and nutmeg. I line up shiny aluminum bread tins and fill them with smooth, creamy batter that will rise to become cranberry-walnut or banana-chocolate chip or pumpkin bread. Or I hand roll dense, dark fudgy truffles, spiked with Amaretto or rum, rolled in bitter cocoa powder or colorful sugar sprinkles and slip them into dainty paper cups, gold and silver or peppered with tiny red and green poinsettas. Or beautiful butter cookies, carefully cut out in holiday shapes, stars and trees, reindeer or menorahs or maybe this year they’ll be gingerbread cookies, richly spiced and redolent of molasses.
This week, I tried something new, a Christmas goody that has long intrigued me but one I have never made. Stollen, a specialty of Dresden, Germany, a cross between a bread and a cake, studded with raisins and candied fruit, a hint of rum and ground nuts, generously dusted with powdered sugar and presented in all her beautiful glory on the holiday table. I started with a rather awkwardly translated recipe that had been given to Ayako of Samurai Viking Cuisine, the original traditional German recipe from the book Backen macht Fruede from Dr. Oetker. This was a great challenge for me as a baker! I knew there were both errors and confusion in the recipe but this gave me the chance to fiddle around with it and, going by instinct and using my better judgment, I altered the recipe, fiddled a bit more, replaced the raisins and candied lemon peel with luscious, tangy dried cranberries and the subtle hint of freshly grated orange zest and came up with a wonderful Stollen, if I may say so myself. The bright red cranberries against the golden backdrop of this cakey bread lent it a Christmassy air and the coat of powdered sugar dressed it up like snow on a country hillside.
Stollen, traditionally, is wrapped up in plastic wrap and left out for 2 to 3 weeks, time to allow the flavors to mingle, but I found that eaten warm from the oven the bread is soft and full of flavor, orange and rum and hazelnuts all shining through. The only change I would make would be to divide the dough into 2 or even 3 smaller loaves, allowing one for us and two to give as the perfect Christmas gift!
CHRISTMAS (DRESDEN) STOLLEN
4 cups (500 g) flour, all purpose, type 55
2 tsp (10 g) baking powder
5 ¼ oz (150 g) ground almonds or hazelnuts (I used ground hazelnuts)
½ tsp ground cardamom
½ tsp ground nutmeg
12 Tbs (175 g) unsalted butter
1 cup (200 g) sugar
1 packet (about 1 ½ Tbs, 20 g) vanilla sugar
7 oz (200 g) dried cranberries *
Grated zest of one large orange **
¼ to ½ tsp bitter almond extract
1 Tbs rum
2 large eggs
1 cup (250 ml) quark or fromage frais
For the icing:
3 – 4 Tbs softened unsalted butter
1 ¾ oz (50 g) powdered/confectioner’s sugar
* can be replaced with raisins or a mixture of raisins and dried currents
** can use candied lemon or orange peel if you prefer
In a large mixing bowl, stir the flour, baking powder and ground nuts together until blended. Stir in the cardamom and the nutmeg. Add the butter, cut into cubes, and, using your fingertips, rub the butter into the flour/nut mixture until the texture of damp sand.
Add the sugar, vanilla sugar, dried cranberries and orange zest to the flour/nut/butter mixture and toss well to combine.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs, the quark, the rum and the almond extract until smooth. Pour this over the dry mixture in the large mixing bowl and, using a fork or wooden spoon, fold and blend together until all of the dry ingredients are damp and everything pulls together into a dough.
Scrape the dough out onto a floured work surface and knead for 10 – 20 minutes (the original recipe suggests 20 – 30 minutes but I can’t get beyond 10 at the most!), adding extra flour as needed, until the dough is smooth and no longer sticky.
Form the dough into a Stollen: a long, flattish, plump loaf with an indentation (made using the side of your hand) all down the center of the loaf.
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Place the loaf on a parchment-lined baking sheet.
Bake at 350°F (180°C) for 45 minutes (if, near the end, the loaf looks like it is browning too quickly, cover it with aluminum foil) then lower the oven temperature to 325°F (160°C) and bake for an additional 15 minutes.
As soon as the Stollen is out of the oven, brush the entire top and sides with the softened butter. Then generously sprinkle the entire surface with powdered sugar (it should be like a thick layer of snow).