Aroma of festive European breads wafts through holiday kitchens

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Eleven months out of the year it may be the staff of life, but when the holiday season is upon us, bread bakers have the chance to show off their artistry. It's the time to create festive breads in all sizes, shapes, and flavors, both savory and sweet.

Some breads have traditional ties, a symbolic shape or flavor that makes them special for the holidays. Every European country has a tradition of sweet, fruity breads that are so good served with spicy cider.

Czechoslovakian immigrants brought their handsome fruit-studded Vanocka to the United States. Its braided shape is said to resemble the Christ child wrapped in swaddling clothes.

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From Germany, there is almond-scented Kugelhopf, traditionally a Name Day cake to be eaten on the birthday of the saint for whom one was named. It also makes a marvelous coffeecake on Christmas morning. It is lemony, rich with almonds and butter, and requires no kneading.

Pretzel-shaped Kringle from Russia is filled with almond paste enhanced with orange. It shines with a vanilla-scented glaze and makes a lovely dessert.

Savory Italian Rye Bread makes a delicious loaf for dinner, sandwiches, or snacks.

To get a head start on the season, all of these breads can be baked and frozen until needed. A food processor or a mixer with a dough hook makes quick work of the mixing.

Working with yeast doughs is a pleasure, but remember that dough rises best in a warm kitchen. Rising times suggested in the recipes may vary depending upon kitchen temperature and the weather. Warmth and humidity speed up rising; if your kitchen is cool, allow extra time.

Wrapped and tied with a bright ribbon, these breads become a most special gift welcomed by all. No Knead Kugelhopf 1 cup milk 3 packets active dry yeast 4 cups flour 3/4 cup sugar 1 cup butter, softened 6 eggs 1 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon grated lemon rind 1 cup golden raisins 12 blanched almonds Confectioners' sugar

Warm milk slightly, to 105 to 115 degrees F. Stir in yeast. Place 1 cup flour in large bowl. Pour milk over flour and beat well. Cover with plastic wrap and towel. Set in warm place until sponge doubles, about 1 hour.

Beat sugar and butter together until smooth. Beat in eggs one at a time, beating until mixture is creamy and light. Beat in salt, lemon rind, and raisins. Beat in sponge and remaining flour.

Grease and flour a 9-inch Kugelhopf pan, Bundt pan, or tube pan. Arrange almonds in bottom of pan. Place dough on top. Let rise until almost doubled, about 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Bake Kugelhopf 50 to 60 minutes. Let cool 10 minutes, then remove from pan. Sprinkle with confectioners' sugar when cool. Vanocka (Czechoslovakian Fruit Braid) 2 packets active dry yeast 1/2 cup warm water (105 to 115 degrees F.) 1 cup milk 1/2 cup butter 3/4 cup brown sugar 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 cup currants 1/2 cup slivered almonds 4 egg yolks 2 tablespoons grated orange peel 2 teaspoons crushed anise seed 5 to 6 cups unbleached all-purpose flour 1 egg beaten with 2 tablespoons cream 1/3 cup sliced almonds Confectioners' sugar

Stir yeast into warm water. Set aside. Heat milk, butter, sugar, salt, and currants in saucepan until butter just melts. Let cool to lukewarm, then stir in yeast, almonds, egg yolks, orange peel, and anise.

Place 3 cups flour in large bowl. Stir in milk mixture and beat well. Blend in more flour, one cup at a time, until a soft but manageable dough is formed. On lightly floured surface, knead dough until smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes. Knead in only enough flour to keep dough manageable.

Oil large bowl, add dough, and cover with plastic wrap and towel. Let rise until dough has doubled in bulk, about 1 1/2 hours.

Punch down dough, then knead until smooth. Cut dough into five equal pieces. Cover with plastic and let rest five minutes.

Line baking sheet with parchment or lightly grease sheet. Roll each piece of dough into a 15-inch-long rope. Center 3 ropes on baking sheet and braid loosely. Pinch ends together and tuck under loaf. Brush with milk. Twist remaining two ropes together loosely and place on top of braid; pinch ends together and tuck under. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise until almost doubled, 35 to 45 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Bake braid 35 minutes. Brush with egg-cream glaze and sprinkle with almonds. Bake 10 minutes longer, until bread browns and sounds hollow when rapped on bottom. If bread browns too quickly, cover with loose tent of foil. Remove bread from oven and let cool completely before wrapping. Sprinkle with confectioners' sugar before serving. Russian Almond Kringle 2 packets dry active yeast 1/2 cup water, 105 to 115 degrees F. 1/2 cup sugar 1/2 cup cream 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 cup butter 4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour 3 eggs 1/2 cup shopped candied orange peel 1 egg beaten with 2 tablespoons cream Almond Filling 1 1/2 cups almond paste (12 ounces) 1/2 cup softened butter 1/2 cup confectioners' sugar Glaze 1 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar 1/4 cup milk 2 teaspoons vanilla

Stir yeast and water together. Heat sugar, cream, salt, and butter in saucepan until butter melts. Cool to lukewarm.

Place flour in large bowl. Blend in yeast, cream mixture, eggs, and orange peel. Knead until smooth. Place in large greased bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and towel and let rise until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.

Punch down dough. Knead briefly; cut into two equal parts. Roll each into 30 -inch-long rope. With sharp knife make a 28-inch slit in each rope to form a pocket. Spread each pocket with one-half of blended filling ingredients. Pinch edges together and place on greased baking sheet. Twist into pretzel shape. Cover with plastic wrap, let rise until doubled, about 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Bake 30 minutes. Brush with egg-cream glaze. Continue baking 5 minutes. Cool. Pour glaze over Kringle; sprinkle with almonds. Italian Rye Bread With Fennel 1 1/2 cups warm water, 105 to 115 degrees F. 2 packets active dry yeast 1 tablespoon sugar 2 teaspoons salt 1/4 cup olive oil 2 tablespoons fennel seeds 4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour 1 1/4 cups coarse rye meal, also known as pumpernickel flour 1 egg mixed with 3 tablespoons water Fennel seed to sprinkle on top of loaves

Stir yeast, sugar, salt, and oil into warm water. In large bowl, combine fennel seeds and flours. Add yeast mixture and blend to form firm dough. Knead 5 minutes, until smooth and elastic. Place dough in greased bowl; cover with plastic wrap and towel. Let rise until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour. Punch down and knead briefly. Divide dough in two equal parts. Shape into loaves about 14 inches long, fat in the middle and tapering at ends. Place on greased baking sheet. Let rise until almost doubled. Brush with egg-water glaze, make three diagonal slashes in loaves with sharp knife, and sprinkle with fennel seeds. Bake in 400-degree F. oven 35 to 45 minutes.

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