The year that I announced a hand-made Christmas was not promising. I stayed up all night on Christmas Eve rolling truffles and finishing a painting for my mother. In the morning, I was bleary-eyed and smudged with oil paint. This time around, I made lists in October, went shopping in November and potato-printed wrapping paper in early December. I was feeling as smug as anything.
Then I remembered the stollens. The kilo of raisins, cranberries, apricots and prunes marinating quietly on the top shelf in the kitchen.
To be fair, we all laughed at my nice colleague when she announced her plans to make 25 stollens to send home to Japan – at Christmas time? With our insane work schedules and our ridiculously tiny Parisian kitchens?
But she was determined: months ago she went to G. Detou to buy kilos of fruit. She candied her own orange peel, made her own marrons glacés. This week she spent her day off kneading dough, and her lunch hour (lunch-twenty-minutes, really) sliding the oblong loaves into the wide baker’s oven, wielding the wooden spade with ease. She bought fancy Bordier butter to brush on top when they came out, the brown crust bursting with fruit, and sucre neige or ‘snow sugar’ to cover the stollens the next day, veritable drifts of icing sugar that contrast with the simple dough and boozy fruit, and help keep the preserve the stollen for a month or two. Or so she tells me. I fear that I am not only lacking her work ethic but also her self-control.
I did copy her and left some dried fruit to soak in the headiness of dark rum. (That was the easy part.) I thought I could make a reasonable dozen. It turns out that my child-size oven will only fit one stollen at a time and my tired hands and brain only want to sleep after the long night-shifts in December.
This time around, then, I shall be a grown-up and admit defeat. I have made you all stollen, people that I love, delicious fruit bread with a marzipan centre that should leave you with a smile and a trail of powdered sugar on your jumper. It is not too rich for afternoon tea and will keep well even after the Christmas madness dies down, well enough to liven up a dull January day.
I have made you stollen, but it is only virtual.
All you have to do is follow the instructions and get your hands a little sticky kneading buttery dough speckled with fruit. Spend a lazy afternoon by the fire as you wait for it to rise, stroke a cat, wrap some presents. Think of me in the bakery, placing raspberries on Christmas logs with geometric precision, as you pat the dough out and enfold tubes of marzipan inside. Try not to cut into the loaf as it comes out of the oven, though you will be tempted by the smell of yeast and almonds. Brush with butter and sprinkle with caster sugar, and wait until the next day. Cover in handfuls of icing sugar, on both sides, and still, don’t eat it! Distract yourself with mince pies, speculoos. Wait a week, if you can, for it to settle and mature, absorb the sugar and become a rounded whole.
However in the spirit of lowering the bar, of reasonable expectations and an absence of self-flagellation, I could certainly understand if you were to nibble, a little early, on your homemade stollen. If you forgot to soak fruit in rum months ago, do it now and leave it for two days – you are forgiven. For it is Christmas and there is no space for guilt, only indulgence.
makes 2 large loaves – or even 4 small ones for postable gifts
200g plain flour
10g active dried yeast
70g egg yolks (about 3 large eggs’ worth)
120g butter, room temperature
360g dried fruit pre-soaked in rum
120g butter, melted
icing sugar, lots
Mix flour, sugar and salt in a large bowl. In a small jug, mix the hand-warm water with the yeast and just a pinch of sugar. Leave for 15 minutes to bubble. Heat the milk in the microwave, again to body temperature, and stir in the yolks. Pour both milk and yeast into the flour bowl and stir well to combine.
Start to knead the dough. If there are lots of dry flaky bits, add a tablespoon water. When you have made a smooth ball, break off a piece and squish it together with the butter, which should be nice and soft. Then combine with the rest of the dough. It will be a sticky mess, no matter, as long as it is a homogenous sticky mess, work in the fruit. (It is probably best to drain the fruit in a sieve beforehand so that it is not too wet.) When the fruit is evenly distributed, sling the mass of dough back in the bowl and cover with clingfilm. Leave to rise for an hour. (If your kitchen is as cold as mine, microwave a cup of water until bubbling, quickly shove your bowl in the microwave and close the door. Then it will have a warm humid environment for good rising.)
Tip dough out onto a floury bench, roughly shape into two or four balls. My dough was still too shaggy at this point to really form a ball. Dust with more flour and cover with a teatowel. Leave for 20 minutes.
Depending on how dry your dough is, either roll it out or push it into a rectangle about 30x20cm for two large stollens. Squeeze the marzipan into a cylinder 30cm long, enfold in the middle of the dough. Gently place the roll seam side down onto a baking tray lined with baking paper and let rise for 40 minutes.
Heat oven to 175C. Bake stollens for 30-35 minutes, depending on their size. They should be golden brown, firm to the touch and leave a toothpick clean when prodded. Brush immediately all over with melted butter and sprinkle with caster sugar. The next day, cover with icing sugar, lots and lots of it, top and bottom.
Try to resist eating the stollen for a week. Or at least, eat one loaf and save the other. If you want to post one, dust extra-well with icing sugar, wrap in several layers of clingfilm, then wrapping paper and bubble wrap and you should be good to go.