Fruitcake Upgrade: A Recipe for Christmas Stollen
This German sweet bread makes a delicious gift—especially once you ditch the Day-Glo cherries. A dash of nutmeg and a nip of brandy give this recipe its festive kick
By Georgia Freedman in the Wall Street Journal
IT ARRIVED EVERY year in mid-December, a hefty brick of a package wrapped in red cellophane and tied with a thin ribbon. Inside was my Great-Aunt Barb’s stollen, a traditional German Christmas bread that she made in huge batches and sent out to family and friends. The stollen was dense and buttery and brandy-spiked, studded with almonds and jewel-like chunks of candied orange and citron, dried pineapple and golden raisins. The bread itself was not very sweet, but Aunt Barb topped each loaf with snow-white frosting and cherries dyed a red so bright they practically glowed like the lights on our Christmas tree.
Throughout my childhood, Aunt Barb’s stollen was an integral part of our Christmas ritual, a treat eaten midmorning, between the frenzied free-for-all of the stockings and the more measured, ceremonial opening of the presents under the tree. My mother served slices of it on Christmas-themed napkins, often with a thick slab of brie on top.
Made from yeasted dough, traditional stollen becomes soft and moist with the addition of butter and rum, which preserve the bread so that it can ripen for a few weeks and absorb the flavors of the fruit. It’s a beloved Christmas treat all over Germany, where it has been made in one form or another for centuries. In Dresden, there’s even a “protection association” dedicated to ensuring that loaves bearing the name contain the right proportions of butter, fruit and almonds.
Aunt Barb’s family had German roots, but in many ways her stollen was very American. The candied fruits she used reflected her cosmopolitan life in New York, where she had access to specialty stores like Zabar’s. Additionally, her version was preserved with brandy rather than rum, giving it a flavor that must have been popular with a generation used to drinking Sidecars at cocktail hour.
That combination of flavors defined my Christmases for years. But then, when I was in college, Aunt Barb passed away suddenly, and, just like that, stollen disappeared from our family ritual. No one felt up to the challenge of such an ambitious baking project.
This year, however, will be different. For the first time, I will be on the other side of the Christmas equation: With the birth of my daughter this past spring, I have become not just a mother but the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus. To share my family traditions with the next generation, I have decided to become the stollen maker, too.
‘I wanted to take the stollen I grew up with and update it.’
A few weeks ago I reached out to Aunt Barb’s children, and they sent me a copy of her original recipe. Only then did I discover that our family’s stollen tradition had begun with Barb’s grandmother (my great-great-grandmother), Margaret Georg, who had left Barb a copy of the recipe in elegant handwriting. Over the years, Barb had tweaked the recipe to suit her own tastes and updated it in painstaking detail.
For my first try at stollen, I followed Barb’s instructions closely. I soaked the fruit overnight in the brandy, made a yeast starter, added butter, sugar, eggs and more brandy, then kneaded in flour until I had a pliant, stretchy dough. After letting the dough rise, I added an astonishing volume of fruit and nuts and kneaded the whole mixture until it somehow all stayed together. When the loaves were baked they tasted exactly as I had remembered, boozy and wonderful, but a little artificial from the industrial-grade candied fruit.
Curious about how more traditional iterations would compare, I sought out other recipes, and soon I was testing stollen filled with the classic mix of nuts, raisins and citrus peel; loaves flavored with a caravan’s worth of spices; and ones made with various liquors. Each was lovely in its way, but the more I tried, the more I felt pulled back to Barb’s recipe.
What I really wanted, I realized, was to take the stollen I grew up with and update it, just as Barb had done. I went back to her instructions, but swapped out the neon-hued candied fruits for undyed natural versions. I also added a touch of nutmeg to the dough, to complement the flavor of the brandy. And when the loaves came out of the oven, I brushed them with melted butter and topped them with powdered sugar instead of frosting. The result was a perfect balance of old and new, and so good that I’m planning a whole day of baking in early December so that I can make a huge batch of stollen to send to friends and relatives. Wrapped in red cellophane, of course.