It’s Christmas Eve! Many of us have had to alter our usual traditions and rituals, and that has been a sometimes sad experience. I have tried hard to preserve as many of the traditions as I can here at home to instill the spirit of joy. It isn’t the same, of course. It is very different not to have holiday events to go to and family to bring together. Still, one of the traditions that I have hung onto this year is baking and sharing (in the form of mailing) Christmas bread.
When I was growing up my father happened onto a recipe in a magazine for a Christmas bread called Vánočka. He made it that first year and it became a tradition in our family from then on. Vánočka is a Czech Christmas bread. Although we are not Czech, the bread is a part of us. The truth is, I never really thought about its origins much as a kid. It was as normal to have around Christmas as sugar cookies and a big prime rib roast on Christmas day.
To this day I make it every year and my children don’t know any other Christmas breakfast than toasted slices of Vánočka and hot cocoa. Well, it’s usually coffee for them, now that they are grown.
My first Christmas in my own home, my father sent me a photocopy of the recipe he had pulled from the magazine years before. I think it may have been Sunset Magazine but it isn’t marked on the photocopy anywhere. What is marked, which I find joy in every year, is that my father took the time to put the photocopy into a typewriter and type “Dad’s” next to the title of the recipe.
My father passed away many years ago, but at Christmas I miss him a great deal because of these little reminders of how special he made Christmas- this recipe, the handwritten sugar cookie recipe, the memories of him settling cookie frosting bickering between me and my brother…
So, I share this with you, from my Christmas to yours.
As usual, I have tinkered with the recipe over the years to make it more to my own liking. For instance, the recipe calls for”glacé, or candied, fruits, the kind found in fruitcakes the world over. I have never liked these so I have left them out entirely and have substituted dried cranberries for the raisins. I just think they add a nicer color and taste to the finished bread. And, finally, the recipe calls for lemon peel, which I have upped in volume to add more fresh citrus flavor.
This recipe is a long one because it goes through three rises, essentially. The first is to make a mixture of warm (110°) water, yeast and a little flour. That sits for an hour and becomes bubbly. At the same time, I plump up dried cranberries by combining them with an equal amount of warm water in a dish and let that set for an hour also.
After the hour is up, begin beating butter and sugar together until fluffy. Add an egg and beat for a good two minutes. While that is going on, drain the water from the cranberries and add a spoonful of brandy to them and then set them aside for a few minutes.
Once the butter mixture is very light and airy, add a little salt and some lemon peel.
I have a very handy tool for creating nice juliennes of lemon peel.
I also find if I use my zester tool to remove strips of peel right into the mixing bowl, the fine mists of lemon juice that the process emits end up in the bowl.
If you don’t have this tool, it is no big deal. Just cut pieces of lemon peel, without the white pith, and cut into julienne strips with a knife. You want them fairly big, not like the fine zest used usually. You really want to see it in the dough and once baked, you want to get that nice citrusy bite.
Beat that all together and then add that to the now bubbly and thick yeast mixture. Using a sturdy spoon- I love my wooden spoons for this- beat the two mixtures together really well. Then add in a little more flour.
Then, add the cranberries with all the brandy right into the dough. Mix that all together.
At this point the dough will be really wet. So add another 1/2 cup of flour and combine that well. The dough should be ragged and sticky but easily removed from the bowl. If not add a little more flour to get it to that consistency.
Turn the dough onto a floured board and knead it for a while. It is a sticky dough and will take up quite a bit of flour so keep dusting the board and kneading until the dough no longer sticks to the board and is pliable and elastic but not dry.
Place dough in a floured bowl to rise for another 1 1/2 hours.
Punch that risen dough down and turn it back onto the floured board. Knead about a dozen times and then cut the dough into 3 even pieces. Roll each piece into a 12” rope.
Braid the pieces together. I start at the top, pressing the 3 pieces together and then braid, finishing by pressing the three pieces together at the bottom.
Place that braid onto a sheet pan and cover to rise for a final time for 35 minutes. Then, bake it for 30 minted at 350°.
Like all bread, this beautiful golden loaf is so delicious right out of the oven with melted butter. But it is also great at room temperature.
And, as I mentioned before, Toast up slices and slather them with butter. Perfect Christmas breakfast for sitting by the tree opening presents.
Double the recipe and make two loaves- one for you, one to share!
- mixer with mixing bowl
- additional mixing bowl
- sheet pan
- 2 1/4 tsp yeast equal to one envelope
- 1/2 cup warm water 110°
- 3 cups flour
- 1/4 cup dried cranberries
- 1/4 cup warm water
- 1 tbsp brandy
- 4 oz butter 1 stick
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 egg
- 1/2 tsp salt
- lemon peel of one lemon julienned
- Stir together 110° water with yeast and 1/2 cup of flour together in a mixing bowl. Cover with a towel and let set for 1 hour.
- Meanwhile, combine dried cranberries and enough warm water to just cover them. Let set for 1 hour.
- After 1 hour, beat butter and sugar together until fluffy with a mixer.
- Add egg and beat for 2 minutes.
- Drain water from cranberries and add brandy. Set aside.
- Add salt and lemon peel to butter mixture. Beat together.
- Add butter mixture to yeast mixture. Using a wooden spoon, beat together until combined.
- Add 1/2 cup flour and beat together well.
- Add the cranberries with brandy to the dough and stir to combine. Dough will be still wet.
- Add another 1/2 cup of flour and combine well. Dough should be ragged and still a bit sticky but you should be able to easily remove it from the bowl. If not, add more flour, a little at a time until it can be removed from the bowl.
- Turn dough onto a floured board and knead, adding flour to keep the dough from sticking to the board. Knead for 5-10 minutes, until dough is no longer sticky, but not too dry. It should be pliable and have little tears in it.
- Place dough in a buttered bowl and cover. Let rise for 1 1/2 hours.
- Punch dogh down and knead about a dozen times. Cut the dough into 3 even pieces. Roll pieces into 12" ropes.
- Braid ropes and place braided loaf onto a sheet pan. Cover and rise for 35 minutes. Preheat oven to 350°.
- Bake for 30 minutes.