Christmas Stollen

I used to be a devotee of traditional Christmas Cake, but my Dutch partner introduced me to home-baked Stollen – an entirely different thing from the dense, overly sweet version you can buy in the shops – and that is now our Christmas baking tradition. Although an enriched bread, it is much lighter than Christmas cake, yet still has the seasonal tastes of dried fruit, citrus peel and marzipan.

For many years I have used Delia Smith’s Stollen recipe, but after doing the (highly recommended) Puff pastry course this year I felt emboldened to experiment and see if I could create something even better. I compared the quantities and methods of several recipes, and adjusted the ingredients to our tastes: no glace cherries, lots of peel and dried apricots rather than currants. Feel free to adjust the dried fruit to your preferences, just keeping the overall quantity the same. I used Puff bread guru Nicola Lamb’s brioche method for making the original dough in the mixer, and rested the dough in the fridge, which I think helped to develop the flavour and give a better rise. I also find it convenient to be able to take a break in proceedings, as the long bulk rise and proving times mean that you are otherwise tied to the house for the best part of six hours!

One of the recipes I tried was by Richard Bertinet, which included creme d’amandes, as well as chunks of marzipan. The creme d’amandes filling was delicious – imagine an almond croissant crossed with brioche – but I found encasing the gooey filling in the bread dough was quite a challenge, so rather a lot of it ended up on my baking sheet. I also made the mistake of using chunks of commercial marzipan, which was actively unpleasant. I normally make my own marzipan and was mystified when my sister-in-law said she didn’t like marzipan: now I understand, if she’s only ever had the packaged variety.

So my recipe specifies home-made marzipan, which is hardly any trouble, and makes all the difference to the final stollen. The end result is a light bread, not too heavily fruited, with a delicious soft almond marzipan centre. I have used less butter than Delia suggests but you could increase the butter to 110g using exactly the same method if you prefer something a bit richer. The stollen is delicious unadorned when first baked, and then toasted and buttered a day or two later. It also keeps well in the freezer if you don’t want to eat it all at once (or you can batch bake and have one to eat later).

Do measure out the butter and milk (and take your egg out if you keep them in the fridge) in advance, so that they come to room temperature. Yeasted dough doesn’t like the cold, and trying to incorporate fridge-cold butter into brioche-type dough is asking for trouble.

  • 350g strong white flour
  • 50g sugar
  • 8g salt
  • 7g instant dry yeast
  • 150g milk
  • 1 large egg (75g)
  • 90g softened butter
  • 50g sultanas
  • 70g candied citrus peel
  • 40g soft dried apricots
  • 25g flaked almonds
  • zest of 1/2 lemon
  • 20g melted butter
  • icing sugar to finish
  • For the marzipan:
  • 80g ground almonds
  • 80g caster sugar
  • zest of 1/2 lemon
  • 1 small egg

Mix the flour, sugar, salt and dried yeast in the bowl of your mixer. Fit the dough hook and add in the room temperature milk (slightly warm yours if it has come straight from the fridge) and beaten egg. Mix the dough on medium speed for 5-7 minutes until it is starting to become stretchy.

Now increase the speed of the mixer and start adding the butter in small pieces (about 1 tbsp each), waiting until each one is absorbed before adding the next. To begin with it may look as if the dough is splitting apart but keep going. Mix at high speed until the dough is shiny and elastic.

If you are doing this by hand, mix all the dry ingredients in the bowl then add the milk, egg and softened butter and mix until the dough starts to come together. Now knead the dough for 5-7 minutes. The dough may be a bit sticky, but don’t be tempted to add flour (wet your hands if it’s sticking too much). You may not get quite the same results as using a mixer, because adding the butter at the beginning can reduce the rise (do the Puff course if you want to learn how to incorporate the butter separately by hand!).

Transfer the dough to a bowl, cover (I use those disposable shower caps which I no longer need now that travelling is not possible) and leave it to rise somewhere warm and draught-free for 1-2 hours. The dough should roughly double in size and the time this takes will be affected by the temperature in your house. Mine took an hour and a half in the airing cupboard.

Now punch down the dough – you should be able to see the air bubbles you are pressing out – and put it in a closed container in the fridge for a few hours or overnight. You can go directly to the next step if you prefer or are short of time, in which case you can put the dough back in the mixer to mix in the dried fruit.

Meanwhile, prepare the ingredients for the filling. Make the marzipan by mixing equal quantities of ground almonds and caster sugar with the zest of half a lemon and enough beaten egg for the mixture to just come together. For 80g of almonds and sugar you will probably only need about two-thirds of the egg. Mould the marzipan into a log (or two if you’re making two half-size loaves, which I prefer) and rest it in the fridge.

Weigh out the dried fruit and cut the peel and apricots into small pieces. If you can get it, the candied peel that comes in big pieces has much more flavour and a better texture than the tubs of ready cut peel. My sultanas and apricots were looking a bit dried out so I soaked them in water (you could of course use a tablespoon or two of brandy or rum if you prefer).

When you are ready to proceed take the dough out of the fridge and let it come to while you mix the filling ingredients together in a bowl. Lightly flour your bench and put your dough smooth side down on the surface. Flatten it out to a rectangle about 25 x 25 cm. Spread half the filling over the bottom half of the dough, and fold the top half of the dough down over it. Now stretch the dough a bit sideways, add a quarter of the mixture and fold the dough in from the left. Now turn the dough over so that what was the right hand edge is on the left, gently press it out sideways and repeat the fold to incorporate the last quarter of the filling. Finally press it back out and repeat the turns, to ensure the fruit is evenly incorporated. Don’t overdo this as the dough will become sticky and the fruit will start popping out. Form the dough into a ball, put it back in its bowl and leave to rest for 30 minutes.

Grease a baking tray (or two) or line with silicone paper and take the marzipan out of the fridge Flatten the dough to a 25 x 20 cm oblong and place the log of marzipan down the centre (or divide in half and shape two separate loaves). The marzipan should be just short of each end so you can completely enclose it in the dough. Fold each side of the dough over to cover the marzipan, pinching the edges to seal. Place the stollen seam side down on the prepared baking tray, cover with a cloth and leave it to prove for around 2 hours until it has doubled in size. About half an hour before it is ready pre-heat the oven to 170 C fan.

Bake the stollen for 30-35 minutes until it is golden brown. Check after 20 minutes as you may need to turn the temperature down to 150 C fan if it is browning too fast. Transfer it to a rack. While it is still warm brush it with the melted butter and sieve icing sugar generously over it.

The stollen will last for four or five days, and a freshly baked loaf (or half of one) keeps well in the freezer if you have made more stollen than your household can (or should) eat in a few days – hence my preference for making two smaller loaves.

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