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The days are flying by alarmingly lately; Christmas is hurtling at us (those of us who care, presumably) rather too fast. If you ask me, it’s too late for shopping; you’re guaranteed to get in a fender-bender, so you might as well stay home. It’s even too late for shopping online, as indicated by the sudden cessation of used book sales from my Amazon.com account. What’s left to do? Well, there’s still time to bake!

My mother is German, and part of that heritage means slaving for days (weeks?!) in the kitchen preparing and baking a wide assortment of exquisite and delicious traditional German cookies for the holiday. She would fill about 6 large tins with cookies, make plates of them for all our friends and neighbors, and we’d eat them until well past New Year’s. I knew these cookies had to be good because our friends always raved about them!

This past Thanksgiving, my mom and I spent a couple of days making cookies together. It’s about time I learned the family recipes, and she’s getting tired of doing all the work herself. She brought along a beat-up, faded, torn and very old German cookbook (“Ich Helf Dir Kochen”) stuffed full of clipped recipes and notes, and we dutifully baked our way through 5 recipes – some more labor-intensive than others.

For each of them, we tried some new experimental adjustments for altitude as well, just to see if anything came of it. She lives in Santa Fe at 7000+ feet, where you can just about go ahead and give up on baking anything because it’s sure to be a disappointing experience. So she brought her rolling pin, several pounds of nuts and chocolate, and her cookbook to Denver and we baked here, at the only-moderately-frustrating elevation of one mile high. We reduced the sugar a little here, added extra extract there, raised oven temperatures and shortened baking times. I have to say that overall, our modifications worked. All the cookies came out moist, for one thing – something she’s struggled with for years since moving away from the East Coast.

The final crowning achievement was baking a traditional Christmas “Stollen.” This is a sweet, nutty, dense and moist quick bread topped off with powdered sugar; very festive! The recipe is very easy – just mix, shape and into the oven it goes. The hard part is wrapping it up and freezing it after it comes out; it really does taste much better after a couple of days of rest. We made several altitude changes which resulted in a wonderfully moist and delicious loaf, and I have noted them here.

To my surprise, the original recipe that my mom uses for her Stollen is from Anna Thomas’ Vegetarian Epicure (Book One).  I used the cardamom as listed; my mom leaves it out.

High Altitude notes are indicated by the code ‘HA’ in parentheses.

Stollen

2 1/2 cups flour (HA: add 1 Tbsp)

2/3 cup sugar

1 cup Ricotta cheese (HA: can substitute 1-2 Tbsp of yogurt to add a little acidity, but I didn’t and it came out just fine)

pinch salt

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 tsp almond extract

1 tsp cardamom (I used already-ground; the book calls for the crushed seeds of 5-6 pods)

1 egg (HA: use 2 eggs)

2 Tbsp brandy

2 tsp baking powder (HA: subtract 1/4 tsp)

1/2 cup butter, softened

1 cup ground almonds

Preheat oven to 350 degrees (HA: 375 degrees).

 Mix flour, sugar, cardamom and almonds thoroughly. Mix the wet ingredients in a separate bowl.

Pour the wet ingredients over the dry and mix until moistened. Dump the batter out onto a large work surface (a large cutting board will do); knead just until smooth and form into a loaf (the cookbook says 10 inches long by 8 inches wide; mine was NOT that large, perhaps more like 8×6″; I like it to be at least 3 inches thick so I used that as my guide).

Place the loaf on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour. (HA: place rack in lower third of oven; watch carefully towards end of baking time, mine only needed 45 minutes). You can tap on the loaf to see if it’s done.

Remove from oven and cool on a wire rack. When the loaf has cooled completely, dust it liberally with powdered sugar. Wrap in several layers of plastic wrap, place in a plastic bag and freeze for a few days. Obviously, this can be prepared well in advance.

My mom makes this with added lemon juice for Easter as well. Personally, I’m addicted to the cardamom variety. Germans add lots of raisins and candied fruit to the recipe; I am not a fan of colored gummy things in my cake so I have never eaten it that way. In any case, you can adapt this recipe to suit your own preferences, but you will have to get very creative about where you hide it. Once discovered by nosy cohabitants, it goes fast.

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