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For the Love of Stollen


Every year around this time, I long for stollen, the buttery, rum-flavored German Christmas bread studded with almonds and raisins. My craving for it was sparked, I suppose, by my Swiss-German ancestry but fueled by decades of investigation in search of great stollen no matter where in the world I'm living and a perennial desire for anything rich.

This year, I moved to Los Angeles, and when my stollen hunger arose, I started visiting bakery shops all over the Southland looking for a bread that would satisfy me.

The name comes from stulle, a German slang term for bread. According to legend, the bakers of Dresden, Germany, invented it around 1697 to celebrate the elevation of Augustus Frederick, the Elector of Saxony, to the Polish throne.

The palace bakers were instructed to create "a king's bread." Cost was no object. Expensive ingredients like almonds, nuts, raisins, orange peel, essence of rose and rum were imported. Because the coronation occurred during the Christmas season, the bakers shaped the loaves to resemble a baby in swaddling clothes in respect for the Christ Child.

Ask any baker: Stollen is a labor of love. And like any birth, it's quite a production. The dough requires three proofings (or rises)--four, if you count the sponge. Hands, not molds, are used to shape the loaves.

A good stollen smacks of butter and hints of mace and cardamom. It has poundcake's density and is moist with rum-soaked fruits and the oils of citrus peel and nuts. The color should be golden; a gray tone can mean the dough was over-mixed. Kept in a cool place, stollen stays good for three months. (Around my place it never survives through New Year's Day.)

Stollen heralds the start of the Christmas season in Europe, appearing in bakeries around October. France, Scandinavia and Italy have their versions, but the Swiss, Germans and Austrians consider themselves the real tradition-bearers.

There are thousands of formulas, but bakers point to the Dresden stollen as the benchmark. It calls for a yeast dough enriched with starter, butter and sugar; the liquid usually is milk. It's flavored with almonds, macerated fruits (including citron and orange peels and raisins, both golden and dark) and spices (mace and cardamom). Europeans fault American bakers for adding cinnamon and cheap candied fruit.

Stollen should be evenly strewn with fruits and nuts--in fact, a good one contains equal weights of dough and fruit. Butter content can range from 20% to 50% of the dough. Some stollen, rich in eggs, are brioche-light.

Among the variations on this basic recipe, marzipan stollen (Mandelstollen) outsells the classic version in Southern California, perhaps because of its strong flavor. And many California bakers have come up with unusual combinations, such as cranberries and pistachios.

Back in Michigan, stollen was the star at my family's gatherings at both Thanksgiving and Christmas. My Swiss-German grandmother's version was a coarse crumb bread, studded with raisins, brushed with butter and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar. That was my definition of stollen for two decades.

Later, when I worked as a cook in hotels in ski resorts in Switzerland and Austria, I found that stollen-tasting ranked with skiing as a pastime. My grandmother's ultra-lean stollen turned out to be a diet version next to the dense slices enriched with citrus peel and nuts that I regularly snitched from my employers' pastry kitchens.

It turned out that no two bakers agreed on the formula. Stollen I considered bizarre at first--versions with poppy seed or quark (fresh cheese)--quickly grew on me.

When I moved to Chicago in the late '70s, I blew out my seams on a stollen even richer than most I'd eaten in Europe. Berlin-born Lutz Olkawitz, then executive pastry chef at the Drake Hotel, made a legendary artery-clogging stollen. Not only did he put butter in the dough, he bathed each loaf as it came from the oven in more butter (followed by a shower of vanilla and powdered sugars).

It sold for $12 a pound in the early '80s. That's if you were fortunate to get on his list of 350 names. Luckily, my girlfriend Jolene, also a pastry chef, volunteered as his weekend assistant. (Olkawitz, now retired, still bakes stollen with Jolene every other Christmas, but their 40 loaves are given strictly as gifts.)

My craving followed me to Hong Kong in 1989, and finding stollen there turned out to be easy. All the fancy Western-style hotels had European chefs and retail shops. The quality of the baked goods was high because the consumer demand was there. Many of these stollen cost more than $20 a loaf.

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