There are lots of traditions in every culture. My family of origin had a number of Christmas traditions, enough for me to write about a different one each week during December. One of the absolute cornerstones of Christmas in the Wistrom house? STOLLEN BREAD!
Some of you may not know much about Stollen, so let me educate you just a bit. Being Swedish American - somehow my family claimed Stollen Bread as Swedish. It isn't. It's German. You would think that if you were claiming something as your own, you'd at least change the name. We should have called it something very Swedish sounding like: "Yulendagsingga". The Italians at least renamed it Panettone. (I can't wait to read the emails I get from that crack.)
Stollen Bread is a sweet yeast bread filled with dried candied fruits, nuts and powerful spices. Growing up I had absolutely no interest in it. I was / am a bit of a picky eater, so the thought of fruits in a bread were just not acceptable to my young brain. Then, when I was about 35 years old, I realized that I wanted and needed to have it. It was something like a recessive gene in my DNA just turned on at the appropriate age. Luckily, I have my mom's recipe for it. I'm attaching my mom's original recipe here if you'd like to make it.
It would start in November with mom having my dad drive up to Great Barrington, Mass to the nearest shop that sold candied fruit peel. Mom would buy candied Red Cherry, Green Cherry, Citron, Orange and Lemon peels. This isn't the already cut up stuff you see in a store these days, these were HUGE CHUNKS of peel that had been candied. Once acquired, mom would sit for hours and hours at the kitchen table with a small paring knife cutting that peel into tiny pieces.
Her original recipe made seven loaves, but I remember times when she would have two stollen bakes, knocking out 14 loaves for the holidays. Why so many? Mom was an AMAZING baker, and everyone in town knew about her stollen bread. Mom gave out all the loaves but two that were kept for family. People who came to the door in November and December always hinted and reminded my mom that they'd sure love a loaf. If it was your "first time" getting stollen from Betty Wistrom, you'd get a half loaf. If you sufficiently praised and appreciated it, you'd be given a full loaf the next year. Oh, and if you did anything during the year that displeased her - NO STOLLEN FOR YOU! She wouldn't actually say that - instead she would say something like: "Well, it just didn't come out good this year, so I threw it all away." Ha! No stollen was ever thrown out.
There was a secret ingredient that only the family knew about. It actually wasn't an ingredient as much as a mindset. Mom's very best stollen bread was made when she was mad at my father. This was a known to all of us in the family. If dad really pissed her off, that would be when she'd pull out all the ingredients and start putting it together. She said that she would knead the dough with a lot more determination if she was angry, and I know that it was true.
Making seven loaves of dough in one batch is a huge undertaking. The bread was put together in my mom's dishpan. This was a huge ceramic coated pan that sat in the sink every night filled with soapy water to wash dishes. It was the only thing big enough to take all the ingredients for all that dough. The years mom was really angry, she'd knead that dough in absolute silence - for a LONG TIME. That's what it took to develop the gluten well enough to support all the fruit and nuts. The dough would be wrapped in blankets and allowed to rise overnight. The next day it would be shaped into loaves and sit another 6 hours or so until it went in the oven.
I've changed a few things for modern times. I buy chopped fruit peel mixes and have found a way to use the food processor to get it to the size my mom did. Maria and I live a pretty happy life, so I have to use a Kitchen Aid mixer to knead the dough (in two batches) with the same ferocity that made mom's bread great. I carry on the tradition of only giving a half loaf the first time you get it, waiting for enough praise to warrant a full loaf in the future.
Christmas morning would be incomplete without toasting stollen bread and having the sweet smell fill the kitchen. We all sit and have stollen and coffee first thing that day. We wouldn't think about opening a present without our stollen and coffee on board.
In this crazy year of 2020 I suggest that our traditions will help in keeping some amount of sanity for us. I plan on having Zoom calls with family as we all eat our stollen at the same time.
Another Wistrom holiday tradition will come your way next week. In the meantime - please let me know what this is helping you remember.