For me, there is nothing better than the smell of holiday baking. Here in the United States, a lot of the baked goods around the holidays can be traced to English tradition, using the available ingredients harvested during autumn like apples, pumpkins, carrots, and pears and warm spices like ginger, nutmeg, cloves, and cinnamon. However, there is an overlooked family of baked goods that I personally enjoy and these are the yeast Christmas breads that are made in Europe. As I get older, I tend to eschew heavily iced cookies and cakes and appreciate the more natural flavors of fruit, nuts, and grains. And I do love to process of making bread. As a bread maker myself, there is something sensuous (not sensual, mind you) about kneading the bread. It’s like bringing something to life. In fact, it is a food that needs a living organism (yeast) to form. The transformation from a motley mix of ingredients to a smooth, shiny ball of dough is magical. What better time of year for magic and miracles, right?
Here’s my list of Continental Christmas Breads. I’m sure there are many more and I hope to give some of these a try and so should you! Let’s start in the Mediterranean.
Panettone is a Christmas bread that originated in Milan and it is traditionally a large loaf bread baked in a round, tall-sided pan. It is the most popular of Italian Christmas breads. It is a yeasted bread made with raisins and candied orange zest. Some variations can be plain or contain chocolate. In some regions of Italy, it is served with crema di mascarpone, which is made from mascarpone cheese, eggs, dried or candied fruits and a sweet liqueur like amaretto. There are many legends about panettone but the most romantic says it was created in the 15th century when a young nobleman fell in love with the daughter of a baker named Toni. He baked a moist sweet bread filled with raisins and candied fruit and presented it to the girl’s father to win him over. The Duke of Milan, Ludovico il Moro Sforza agreed to the marriage and encourage the launch of the new bread-like cake called Pan de Toni. Today, one can find panettone boxes the world over during the holidays. There is a reason why most panettones are store-bought. The process is a long one. It takes several proofings (making the bread rise) to achieve its fluffy texture.
The Spanish Roscon de Reyes (King’s Ring) is a traditional dessert served on the night before or the morning of Epiphany, January 6. It is the day children receive gifts from the Wise Men instead of gifts from Santa Claus. It is traditional to put several surprises inside the roscon as well as a porcelain figure of a baby wrapped in foil and a dry bean. Whoever finds the baby will have good luck and be the king of the party but the bean finder has to pay for the cake! In Catalonia, the roscon is called tortell and in southern France, it is known as Gâteau des Rois, Corona dels Reis or Reiaume. It is decorated with figs, quinces, cherries or dried and candied fruits.
Spain’s neighbor, Portugal has the Bolo Rei (King’s Ring) which originated in France and made its way to Portugal in the 19th century when it was introduced by Confeitaria National, the official bakery of the Portuguese monarchy in 1829. The bolo rei is made from a soft, white dough, with raisins and crystallized fruit. It is shaped into a ring resembling a crown and covered with crystallized and dried fruit. Like the roscon, it has a dried bean and whoever finds it pays for the bolo next year. A small prize used to be included but the practice was discontinued since the mid-90s because of potential choking hazards. Photo courtesy of Huffington Post.
Across the Pyrenees, in the Provence region of France, a Christmas bread, Pompe a l’Huile made with sweet olive oil is served as part of the traditional dessert table of thirteen desserts (les treize desserts) and today this bread is the centerpiece of Christmas dessert tables around France. The pompe a l’huile is a cross between a brioche and a focaccia and is flavored with sugar, orange blossom water and lemon zest. It can be eaten plain or with cream or jam. It symbolizes success. According to tradition, it is necessary to break it as Christ broke bread, which means not using a knife, which is bad luck.
Moving on to Balkans, the Greeks made a delicious Christmas bread called Christopsomo (Christ’s Bread), a slightly sweet, light, buttery bread with the flavors of cinnamon, orange and cloves. It is made the day before Christmas and a lot of care is given in its making, and uses only the best quality fresh ingredients. It is a traditionally eaten on Christmas Day. It is usually round and the top is decorated with a Byzantine cross and the ends of the cross swirl around golden walnuts. The bread can be flavored with orange and spices except for the cross which must remain “pure” and cleansed with aniseed.
Koledna Pitka is the Bulgarian holiday bread, typically eaten on Christmas Eve and throughout the holidays, especially for big family celebrations. This is a beautiful honey bread with a surprise inside. A silver coin is tucked inside and the finder should expect good luck in the coming year. If you do not want to put a coin, a walnut or pecan can be good substitutes. The variety of designs for koledna pitka is determined by the skill of the baker so they may be shaped as wreaths, coils, and sunflowers or decorated with pieces of dough.
Česnica or Chesnitsa is a type of Serbian flat bread. Česnica is made with eggs and yeast is served on Christmas morning, January 7, which is the Eastern Orthodox Christmas, and the bread is torn, not cut, either by each person present or by the host, who reserves a piece for the first visitor. It plays an important part of the ritualistic Serbian Christmas celebration. Like its Bulgarian counterpart, it has a silver coin baked inside with the same luck-giving attribute to the finder.
Božić pletenica is a Croatian Christmas yeast bread with fruit and nuts that is a braided wreath. Another version called božićni kruh, more of a stollen-shaped. Every family has its own variation of these holiday treats and can contain nutmeg, raisins, almonds and can be glazed or not. It is used as a centerpiece and decorated with wheat and candles in the center (if wreath-shaped) and left on the table until Epiphany when it is cut and eaten.
One of the most popular Christmas breads after panettone is Stollen or Christstollen, a German Christmas bread that originated in Dresden. It dates back to the 14th century. It is baked at Christmas to honor princes and church dignitaries. Early versions of stollen did not contain milk or butter because the Church forbid them during advent. But in the 17th century, the pope allowed bakers to add milk and butter. Its shape is supposed to represent the swaddled baby Jesus. Other legends say that the jump on the loaves represent the camels that carried the Magi and the candied fruits and raisins represent the precious jewels they carried as gifts for Jesus. Stollen differs from other Christmas bread because it includes a marzipan filling.
Kerstol is a Dutch luscious bread eaten at Christmas time. It’s studded with candied fruit peel and raisins and sprinkled with powdered sugar. It’s similar to the German stollen and if filled with a creamy almond paste is called a “stol.” During the holidays, kerstol is served with butter for breakfast or brunch and offered to guests with coffee or tea.
Chałka (HOW-kah) is a Polish rich, braided egg bread that may or may not contain raisins, a specialty of Polish Jews and beloved by Poles for its sweetness and softness. It’s the equivalent of the Jewish challah and French brioche. After braiding, it is brushed with beaten egg and baked in loaf pans. This bread is served year-round but especially at Christmas and Easter. It is a rich bread that uses a large number of eggs and leftovers are used to make Polish poppy seed bread pudding (makowki) with orange sauce.
Very similar is the Czech Vánočka. Traditionally, this loaf is made of three braids of decreasing size placed one on top of the other but simple three-strand braids are also done. Some variations call for dried apricots and raisins to be soaked overnight in brandy or rum. Citron and aniseed can also be added. In Hungary, the vánočka is known as Fonott Kalacs. Kalacs (kaw-lahch) refers to any yeast-raised cake or sweet bread. The Slovakian version, is called Vianočka. It can be simply or elaborately braided and is a staple on Christmas Eve or štedrý večer, which means “generous evening.” Photos by Vonsachsen (Flickr), Valcs (Flickr) and Divany.
For Christmas, Romanians make a slightly sweet yeast-raised egg bread called Cozonac. It is made with raisins and walnuts or pecans. Bulgarians call this bread kozunak. It’s considered the Romanian version of the Italian panettone and it is can be braided or not, sprinkled with sugar or plain. Slovenians have a simpler variation in their Sarkelj or Raisin Bread. This bread is not braided.
Way up North, the Norwegian Julekake and Swedish Jule Kaga are rich holiday breads flavored with cardamom and studded with raisins and candied citron. It is traditionally served at Christmas time in many Scandinavian countries. Swedes also make a tea ring bread that is similar to a cinnamon roll shaped into a ring and the outer edge cut to reveal the filling. Photo courtesy of Getty Images and Meredith (Allrecipes).
In Finland, breads called Pulla and Nissua are served for the holidays. Pulla is a sweet bread that is very popular in Finland and is the equivalent of our doughnuts. For the holidays, it is made with jam and cream. Because of the cream, this bread stays fresh for only 2 days at room temperature. It is doubtful that it will stick around for that long! Nissua is another name for pulla and it is a braided bread flavored with cardamom. It can be iced with a white frosting glaze and topped with sliced almonds.
Across the Baltic in Lithuania, the Christmas bread Kaledu Pyragas is a slightly sweet yeast dough bread that has white raisins and a poppy seed-honey glaze. The dough can be baked in a round pan or cut and rolled into two round strands and twisted together into a wreath shape and placed on a baking sheet.
In Ukraine, a variation of slight sweet yeast bread, Kolach, is braided into either an oblong loaf, a round braided loaf, or three separate round braids stacked on top of the other. When the stacked kolach is made, a candle is placed in the middle and it becomes an essential part of the Christmas Eve supper. The bread isn’t eaten until the next morning because it contains eggs and Orthodox Christians fast for Advent. It is a symbol of good luck, eternity and prosperity. Photo by Cal’s World (About).
Russians make an interesting pretzel-shaped bread called Krendel or Krendl for Christmas. It is filled with dried fruits and could be left unadorned, lightly iced, dusted with confectioner’s sugar, or sprinkled with coarse sugar before baking. Some krendls are rolled like a jelly roll and shaped into a circle or left as a cylinder. Photo by Olga (Flickr).
These breads are certainly festive and delicious options for your holiday table and if you share the same European heritage as these, you have a little bit of background to add to the conversation. Enjoy!