Bay Area bakers rise to the occasion with the traditional German holiday bread.
Stollen. Dresden Christollen. Strutzel. Striezel. Stutenbrot.
It may go by many names, but this oblong cake, dusted in a thin blanket of powdered sugar, dotted inside with colorful nuts, raisins, currants and candied orange and lemon peels, marks the dessert as one of the quintessential German Christmas cakes of the season. When baked, it gives off heady aromas of cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, cloves, brandy and butter; for many, simply the smell officially declares the start of the season.
The centuries-old history of this holiday treat is as colorful and dense as the bread itself. And on the Peninsula in 2019, local residents have some choice options for tracking down a real deal rendering of this German classic.
Rum-soaked and swaddled
Darius Williams, master baker at Esther’s German Bakery in Mountain View, will be continuing its longtime tradition of offering German stollen during the holiday season. This will be Williams’ first holiday season at Esther’s since replacing its previous Master Baker Ernst Ruckaberle, in January of this year. Originally from Germany, Ruckaberle churned out stollen (among other German fare) in the Bay Area for just under a decade; While at Esther’s, his stollen garnered quite a reputation — and for good reason.
When Ruckaberle was working in Germany as a teenager, learning to bake, he took special note when they were making stollen. He quickly wrote down the recipe on the sole of his shoe when no one was looking, eventually bringing it with him to America.
“Us bakers … we’re very proprietary,” Williams said. “We don’t like to share our recipes with people.” And Ruckaberle was no exception, having opted to keep the stollen recipe a secret after retiring. But, with a background in food science, Williams is up for the challenge of continuing to bake a traditional stollen at Esther’s German Bakery.
“Stollen will be the number one item we focus on this year,” he said, adding that baking stollen is “quite a process.”
The raisins are soaked in rum for at least 24 hours and the dough contains dried fruits like oranges, lemons and marzipan or almond mill. Williams described the end result as a dough that’s reminiscent of brioche, but less sweet and eggy; it contains more butter than eggs and sugar.
Williams also said that, for some, the bread has a symbolic meaning: the coat of powdered sugar is thought to represent the baby Jesus’ swaddling linen, a reminder of the Advent season. Wrapped in a festive cellophane paper, Williams said it looks like a gift, so people tend to use it as such during the holidays.
Because bigger is better
The tradition of baking large stollen has its roots in the 16th century when the bakers of Dresden offered the rulers of Saxony Christmas stollen weighing 36 lbs each. The tradition stuck. And over the years, the stakes got … bigger.
In 1730, Augustus II “The Strong,” Elector of Saxony, King of Poland, Grand Duke of Lithuania and self-proclaimed stollen enthusiast, ordered the Bakers’ Guild of Dresden to make a stollen large enough to feed every guest at one of his festivities. The guest list? 24,000 people.
An oversized oven was built; an oversized knife was designed; and 3,600 eggs, 326 churns of milk and 20 hundredweights of flour later, a stollen weighing 1.8 tons was produced.
Today, the tradition is still going strong; stollen has grown to upwards of three tons and is paraded on the streets of Dresden in its own carriage during Stollenfest. The Dresden Stollen Knife, a five-foot silver-plated knife modeled after the original knife from 1730, is used to ceremoniously cut the gigantic stollen at the annual Dresden Christmas Fair, Striezelmarkt.
Coincidentally, Striezelmarkt in Dresden dates back to 1434 and as such is one of the oldest Christmas markets in the world. The word Striezelmarkt comes from Strüzel or Stroczel, which refers to the cake that is now called stollen or Christstollen.
Though nowadays stollen can be found around the world, Dresdner Christstollen is produced in the city of Dresden and is distinguished by a special seal depicting the city’s famous king, August the Strong, on horseback.
Currently, only 125 Dresden bakers are active members of the Stollen Association and meet the qualifications to produce this “official” stollen. Since 1991, the Stollen Association has distributed the golden seal as a certificate guaranteeing the high quality of the ingredients and traditional processing.
Every year, an independent council commissioned by the Stollen Association conducts an 18-day-long testing period during which the jury evaluates stollen made by more than 120 bakeries and pastry shops. Each stollen is assessed by the criteria set by the association’s constitution and the EU specification through a point system. Only stollen that garners a specific number of points is granted the quality seal and is allowed to be sold as Dresdner Christstollen.
Mainstay for the holiday
Jan Sweyer, owner of Woodside Bakery & Cafe, said that as a European-style bakery, they’ve always been well-known for their stollen, selling upwards of 600 loaves during the season, many of which are special orders.
“We’ve been famous for [stollen] all of our 40 years,” she said. “We are used [to ordering stollen] repeatedly — from personal use to corporate use.”
Sweyer said that they start curing the fruit used in their stollen bread at least a month in advance and that all of their loaves are made from scratch, producing what she describes as an “artisan-looking loaf.”
Woodside Bakery participates in the annual Filoli holiday traditions, where they sell their stollen, along with other assortments of festive treats, at their booth.
This past weekend, Peninsula residents were able to sample stollen straight from the original source — Dresden, Germany — at the annual German Holiday Market in Mountain View, a volunteer-driven event organized by the German International School of Silicon Valley (GISSV).
Cornelia Bohle-Neubrand, President of the Board of Directors at the GISSV, said that the market had a Kaffee and Kuchen (coffee and cake) booth that sold official Dresden stollen imported from Germany.
Bohle-Neubrand, who grew up in Germany as a farmer’s daughter, said that the Kaffee and Kucken booth represents the German tradition of enjoying an afternoon coffee around 4 p.m.
She spoke of the seasonal nature of the ingredients in stollen, noting that the ingredients so characteristic of the cake are the fruits and nuts that are available in the wintertime in Germany.
“There’s something seasonal in it,” said Bohle-Neubrand. “The ingredients evoke the feeling of Christmas — the orange peel, lemon peel, almond, nuts, cinnamon, rum, vanilla. There’s a whole set of taste, aroma, perfume that just … tastes like Christmas for Germans.”
Lisa Töppel, a GISSV exchange student from Dresden, recounted how ever since the reunification of Germany, her uncle, who had fled the socialist regime of the German Democratic Republic via Hungary in order to live in West Germany, now annually travels back to his hometown of Dresden during the Advent season to purchase its famous Christstollen. He fills his trunk with as much stollen as will fit, bringing it home to his family and friends in the western part of Germany.
“We in our family have — traditionally — the first stollen at the first of Advent,” Töppel said. “We have stollen together and drink tea and hot chocolate.”
Bohle-Neubrand said that the taste of stollen stirs up fond memories.
“Stollen gives us this warm feeling of home, family,” she said.
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