Stroll into my kitchen this holiday season, and you'll smell the rich aromas of cinnamon, cardamom, melting chocolate and toasting nuts.
Busy making dozens of festive cookies, most would presume. Nope. Instead, I'm carrying on my family's tradition of baking holiday breads. From dried fruit- and nut-studded German stollen to my mom's own quirky walnut loaf, there is no better way to celebrate the season, culinarily speaking, than with fresh, homemade bread.
My take on holiday foods is rooted in a long history. Bakers in Dresden, Germany, offered stollen as early as the 15th century, and their counterparts in Milan, Italy, and in all parts of Greece created their respective Christmas treats - panettone and christopsomo - from the 10th century onward.
With such long and lasting traditions come rituals as well. Making the anise-flavored christopsomo, or "Christ's bread," is considered a sacred custom, and the baker begins by crossing herself. Because christopsomo is believed to influence the future welfare of the household, the baker adorns the round loaf with a cross fashioned out of ribbons of dough and sometimes studded with unshelled walnuts. Only the highest quality ingredients, including currants and figs, go into christopsomo. Baked with care on Christmas Eve, it is consumed on Christmas Day. At one time it even acted as the centerpiece of the holiday dinner table.
Stollen likewise possesses religious connotations. With its oblong shape, center fold, tapered ends and liberal dusting of confectioners' sugar, the bread is said to symbolize the Christ child dressed in swaddling clothing.
Today, in its hometown of Dresden, this Christmas classic has achieved a cultlike status. Each December, the city holds the Dresden Stollen Festival, where a horse-drawn wagon carries a 3- to 4-ton stollen through the Old Town. A procession of bakers and chefs, up to 80 of whom have participated in the bread's creation, accompanies the wagon to the Striezelmarkt, or Christmas fair. There, the Royal Master Baker and Stollen Maiden cut and serve the giant loaf to hordes of spectators.
At Haegele's Bakery in Philadelphia, owner/baker Glen Haegele follows the recipes of his German ancestors to create a much smaller but no less delectable stollen. Haegele crafts and sells this specialty from Thanksgiving through New Year. It has been a bakery tradition for 78 years.
Unlike the simple stollen that I make, the stollen that Haegele makes uses a starter or sponge that he adds to the final dough. The sponge is a pre-ferment mixture of yeast, water and flour that stimulates final fermentation and enhances flavor.
"I'm using Old World recipes passed down through the family," he says. "Years ago, there weren't strong enough flours to support the addition of fruits and nuts. If you didn't start with a sponge, the dough would collapse."
Unlike the aforementioned breads, Italian panettone is not restricted to holiday tables. Rather, it shows up year-round, sometimes as a dessert or coffee cake, at festive events. Nor does this raisin- and citrus-flecked bread claim a spiritual tie-in.
In fact, its origins remain shrouded in mystery. The romantic account is that a nobleman fell in love with an impoverished baker's daughter and invented this bread for her. Depending upon the source, the nobleman dubbed it panettone, "Toni's bread," in honor of himself, or of the poor baker or the object of his affections.
No matter what the origins, the high-rising panettone and stollen do share a love of a starter or biga, as it is called in Italian artisan breads. This proofing process boosts the distinct fluffy texture and oversized mushroom shape of the golden bread.
For those attempting to make this Milanese masterpiece at home, pastry chef Biagio Settepani, owner of Pasticceria Bruno on Staten Island, N.Y., offers this sound advice: "Use fresh yeast and make the biga a day in advance so that you don't have a yeasty flavor in your panettone."
While Settepani produces such fancy breads as panettone imbottito, which is filled with chocolate mousse and covered with a white or milk chocolate glaze, I tend to stick close to the original recipe. Raisins, candied citron and zest are the classic components for panettone purists.
Similarly, I rarely tinker with the ingredients of julebrod, or Norwegian yule bread. The exotic headiness of cardamom and piquancy of citron and raisins make this round bread the perfect antidote to the surplus of sugary holiday treats.
Eva Mangschou Anderson, who grew up in Bergen, Norway, recalls Christmas skiing trips where julebrod was served at breakfast with butter and slices of Norwegian goat cheese.
"As the bread tends to get dry rather quickly, it was always kept on the wooden counter covered with a dampened towel. Today we wrap it in plastic or foil, which keeps it from drying out," she says.
Dry or moist, sweet or spicy, there seems to be a seasonal bread for every European country. In Switzerland, holiday revelers nosh on birnbrot, a kirsch-laced pear-and-nut bread.
Made from yeasted dough, it appears in the form of a loaf, ring or small buns. Joululimppu, a rich, rye bread that contains molasses, fennel, anise and a hint of orange zest, graces Finnish Christmas tables.
In the Provence region of France, families break out the pompe ? huile on Dec. 25. Flavored with orange flower water and confectioners' sugar, Provencal Christmas bread is said to represent Jesus.
Back in my own kitchen, I bake elongated walnut loaves. As with panettone, the origins of this filled bread are uncertain. I do recall from my childhood, though, how on frigid December days, after trudging home from the school bus stop, I warmed to the scents of cinnamon and brown sugar wafting through our home, which invariably put me in a festive frame of mind. That's the beauty of all these breads. They instill a sense of the season, a Christmas spirit, and remind me of all the customs and symbolism that holiday foods bear.