Every December for as long as I can remember, my dad has declared, one grey morning or another, that it’s “Christmas baking day.” This means that out comes his mother’s ancient deserts cookbook, out comes the flour and sugar and butter and yeast, out come the Bach Advent cantatas, and the oven is fired up for a full day of bread baking and cookie making.
The cookbook in question is this faded green two-ring binder with a scratchy fabric cover and filled with that heavy, ultra-smooth looseleaf of yesteryear, the kind that comes pre-hole-punched and with neatly rounded corners. When I open the cookbook I feel like some wasp-waisted Disney princess turning back the cover of an ancient book of magic spells: a warm glow, an animated swirl of dust motes and enchantment, spills forth. That looseleaf is beyond yellowed; it’s actually browned, as if the whole book had been baked for a little while. Most of the recipes have been cut from magazines; they flake away from where they were once glued, their petrified Elmer’s backing striating the paper. The recipes are insane: strangely intricate candy formulas that require the chef to repeatedly take the temperature of the cooking sugar, as if it were sick; “branded” recipes from advertisements and the backs of packaging, all involving synthetic products that seem to smack of the mid-century (Karo Syrup, Chiffon Margarine, Angel Flake Coconut); relics of homemakers’ columns from the York, Pennsylvania, daily paper, full of dubious syntax and money-saving tricks, deeply reflective of the German ancestry predominant in that part of Pennsylvania. I never met my grandmother, and this is how I know her, this petite, no-nonsense German woman who cut out recipes for Dump Cakes and Divinity Drops, Best-Ever Carrot Cake (the recipe opens with “Have you heard?”), Moravian Sugar Cakes and Viennese Christmas Breads, Sally Lunn and Snicker Doodles, and about twenty different recipes for stollen. One stollen recipe is marked “use this recipe” in her neat cursive, and this is the one my dad still makes every year.
Stollen is a sweet fruit bread made at Christmastime. You can throw all sorts of things in stollen: marzipan and pistachios and almonds, cinnamon and cardamom and poppy seeds, and all manner of dried fruits: lemons and cherries and raisins and kumquats—pickled in brandy or rum, if you like. But what you must have in your stollen, what comprises the very essence of stollen-ness, is an obscene amount of butter. The recipe we use calls for one and a quarter cups of butter. You put much of that into the dough, and then when you’re finished mixing, you roll out the dough, coat it with melted butter, then fold the dough in half to make a kind of fruity butter taco. When it comes out of the oven, you coat more melted butter over its browned crescent top, and cover it with confectioner’s sugar (the sugar crust we usually skip, I presume in deference to my father’s diabetes, which when you think about it is kind of like ordering a Diet Coke with a brownie sundae, but who’s counting). Apparently this butter-and-sugar armament was originally developed way back in the 1500s as a kind of preserving mechanism, and the bread does in fact keep moist and delicious for weeks, during which time you will have a slice of toasted stollen for breakfast each morning, upon which you will slather, yes, another pat of butter.
There’s a whole fascinating medieval history to stollen that involves German princes begging not one but five Popes for permission to use butter during the Advent fasting season. (In 1490 the relenting Pope finally granted what is to this day know as the “Butter Letter.” ) The pursuant ridiculously Baroque buttering up of stollen is only another iteration of that human tendency to binge after a fast. I picture these German serfs like so many ministers’ children having their first sip of beer as college freshmen: gone butter-mad, they dance in the streets with their churns in hand, all gummed up around the mouth with sweet cream.
I worry, though, about the future of stollen. I discovered, much to my surprise, in the back of a recent issue of New York magazine, a brief article about stollen that describes my beloved bread as something of which to be “wary” because of its association with the maligned fruitcake. But never fear!, the magazine proclaims, going on to name-drop some renowned New York City pastry chefs (if a pastry chef is in fact a profession capable of being name-dropped) who have adopted and re-tooled the stollen for modern day American urban gourmands. The article is studded with words like locavore and greenmarket and local-flour and Brooklyn Winter Flea. The people who buy these twenty-eight-dollar loafs are the same people who eat at restaurants decorated with Mason jars once used by my Grandmother Billet for actual vegetable canning in York, Pennsylvania. I worry like the hipster-Gollum clutching his formerly unknown favorite band’s debut EP, seething before the glow of a five-star Pitchfork review on his Mac’s monitor; I worry that my grandmother’s stollen will be the latest niche treat to be snatched up by artisanally-minded, self-proclaimed foodies who act as if every old-timey culinary convention they “rediscover” would have otherwise gone extinct without the resurrective powers of their attention.
Do I sound like some sort of stick-in-the-mud Pennsylvania Dutch grandmother who wants to brag about her stollen, and eat it too? Good. That’s my heritage, after all.
Liz lives and writes in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.