Special holiday breads herald the German Christmas

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

For 300 years, Munich's world-famous Dallmayer Delicatessen has dazzled customers -- kings and kaisers among them -- with a tantalizing array of Germany's finest Christmas delicacies. Snow may fall on the old city streets, but inside Dallmayer's there's a touch of spring -- giant crimson strawberries, fresh dark, bing cherries, golden apricots, melons, mounds of purple grapes.

Not only fruit surprises the holiday shopper. More temptations lurk on every aisle -- in fact, there are two floors full of elegant chocolates, exotic cheeses, 150 different kinds of wurst, jellies, even linens and crystal.

But for any bread lover, it is the bakery with its fragrant traditional Christmas baking, called Weihnachts Geb"ack, that overwhelms. Here are pyramids of buttery cookies and rows of fruit-studded, butter-laden Dresden Stollen. Lebkuchen, a honey cookie and the most ancient of German cookies, are shaped into fairy-tale houses, hearts, stars, angels.

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Here, too, is Hutzelbrot, the old historic country bread made festive with oven-dried pears, plums, and hazelnuts. Practically every German remembers a grandmother baking this in her wood-burning oven.

For Germans, bread is more than just a loaf. At Christmas baker and housewife alike turn artist. Dough must be rolled, braided, wreathed, sculptured, filled.

It has long been the custom to celebrate holidays and church festivals with Gebildebrot. This is ``picture bread,'' or bread in the form of boys, girls, stars, deer, rabbits, horses with riders -- each with tradition and significance.

Dallmayer honors these traditions with a Rhineland Stutenkerli (Stuten means breakfast roll, Kerli is dialect for a boy), a jaunty little man, made of bread, with buttoned coat and long white pipe.

Also of religious significance are their Fatschenkinder, small breads shaped like a babe in swaddling clothes. Dating back to the 1600s, the earliest were molded of wax and silver. (Elisabeth Modlhammer, a South German collector of Lebkuchen molds, explains that Fatschen is an old German dialect word, meaning to wrap or bind, that is still used in some areas of South Germany and Austria.) Later, Lebkuchen dough was pressed into ornately carved Fatschenk ind molds.

Sometimes called Wickelkinder, these fancy molded breads were also once used as gifts to a bride. And when a new baby arrived, a large Lebkuchen Wickelkind made an appropriate gift to the new mother.

When baked of regular bread dough, the Fatschenkind is simpler and less formal and ornate than those made of wax or Lebkuchen dough. Alpine farm women baked such babes of bread out of their best white flour for the family's last pre-Christmas meal. Fatschenkind, Wickelkind, and another bread called Christkindli -- all are similar in shape and decoration.

However, one need not visit Dallmayer's to share in the celebration. These little breads are easily made at home. Children delight in adding decorations and details. Baked in this simple ancient form, Fatschenkinder still remind us of the child Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes that first Christmas. South German Fatschenkind 3/4 cup milk 1/3 cup sweet butter or margarine 1/3 cup sugar 1 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon active dry yeast 1/4 cup lukewarm water 1 teaspoon sugar 1 egg 4 to 4 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose or bread flour Egg glaze Currants or raisins

In a saucepan combine milk and butter over medium heat until very warm. Add sugar and salt and mix well. Cool to lukewarm. Sprinkle yeast and sugar over water; stir briskly. Beat egg in mixer bowl. Add yeast and milk-butter mixtures to egg. Gradually add 2 cups flour and beat 5 minutes with electric mixer. Gradually add remaining 2 cups flour or whatever is necessary so dough is easy to handle.

Finish kneading with dough hook or turn out onto lightly floured board and knead until smooth and elastic, about 8 to 10 minutes. Dough should not stick to the board. Place in greased bowl, turning to grease top of dough. Cover with plastic wrap and set in warm place until double in bulk. Punch dough down. Shaping Fatschenkinder

Divide dough into six equal parts. Cut a tiny piece of dough from each for decoration. Roll each piece into a smooth 8-inch tear-shaped oblong.

With side of your hand, ``cut'' a head for each body, leaving it slightly attached to body.

Place Fatschenkinder on greased baking sheets. Flatten bodies and cover with clean kitchen towel and let rise in warm place for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, add a little extra flour to each remaining piece of dough and work in. Roll each piece of dough into very long thin strips for decoration.

Brush each ``child'' with egg glaze made from 1 egg beaten with 1 teaspoon water. Place center of strip at center of child's head and form a kind of cap. Crisscross at neck and continue to crisscross in figure 8s, gradually diminishing to end of body. Punch currants or raisins into each body for eyes, nose, and button d'ecor. Let rise until double in bulk.

Bake at 350 degrees F. for 15 to 17 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on rack, covering with towel to retain softness. Makes 6 Fatschenkinder.

Norma Jost Voth is the author of ``Festive Cookies of Christmas,'' ``Festive Breads of Christmas,'' and ``Festive Breads of Easter,'' all published by Herald Press (Scottdale, Pa.; Kitchener, Ontario).

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