These days, the holidays and cookie making may go hand-in-hand, but the holiday tradition of baking tasty treats predates chocolate crinkles and jam thumbprint cookies by hundreds of years. One classic confection found in various forms across Europe is made with dried fruit and nuts mixed into a bread or cake. The British (and their former colonies) call it Fruitcake, the Germans: Stollen, the Italians: Panettone, and the French: Gâteau des Rois.
While fruitcake in the US has gotten a reputation akin to that gaudy sweater your aunt gives you every year, it’s not without its merits. How many cakes do you know of that can get you buzzed? I know I probably sound defensive, but that’s because fruitcake and I have a history.
My mom used to run a mail order business (that’s where you order things out of a paper catalog for those of you that are under 30), and one of her regulars would send us a pair of fruitcakes every year for Christmas. A loaf of jewel-like candied fruit, held together by just the slightest amount of buttery rum drenched batter. They were magical, and one of the culinary highlights of the season.
Stollen on the other hand needs no defense. With bread that’s nearly as dense as the fruit it holds, dunked in butter before it’s embalmed in sugar, Stollen is a sinful seasonal delight that’s enjoying a renaissance from the UK to Japan.
As delicious as they are, making Stollen isn’t a small undertaking; a fact I wasn’t aware of until I saw a loaf at a local bakery the size of a TV remote for $30. At first I thought they’d misplaced a zero, but after checking a few other bakeries nearby, the prices ranged from $25 all the way up to $40! As much as I love Stollen, I wasn’t about to spend 3 days worth of grocery money on a loaf of bread.
After getting home, and looking up a few recipes, it became pretty clear why they are so expensive. With a day of soaking, a day of baking, and two days of resting, each loaf takes about 4 days to make. Still, my brief encounter had thoughts of tender dried fruit, and a rich sugar entombed bread dancing about my head.
Knowing I don’t have the baking chops (or patience) to pull off a real Stollen, I hatched a plan to come up with something new instead. Born from my cheapness and laziness, my Christmas bread takes the best parts of Fruitcake, Panettone and Stollen, merging them into a light buttery bread redolent of vanilla and citrus peel.
I soak the fruits and nuts in rum spiked with a whole Tahitian vanilla bean and fresh ground nutmeg; this not only spices the fruit, it flavors the brioche dough as the fruit gets kneaded in. A few generous coats of butter, as it emerges from the oven, ensures a nice thick blanket of powdered sugar; it also keeps the bread tender and moist far longer than it will last given the seconds and thirds everyone is bound to reach for.
For the fruit, I used a combination of candied blood orange and yuzu peel, which was a marvelous combination, but regular candied orange and lemon peel would work fine. I’m not a huge fan of ginger in sweet things, which is why I didn’t use a ton, but if you like ginger, feel free to increase the amount as it was barely perceptible in the finished bread. Lastly, as with any of my recipes, this is just a guideline. Feel free to experiment with other dried fruits such as cherries, mangoes, or pineapples.
The bread is amazing warm, but it gets even better as the butter and sugar have a chance to seep into the bread over the next couple of days. Even if you do decide to eat it fresh, I highly recommend saving a bit to see how the flavor and texture changes over the next few days.
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