Spare a thought for Pope Francis: we learn from the official Catholic News Agency that every week he receives thousands of letters, many of them seeking solace, spiritual support and advice about delicate personal matters. This has prompted us to wonder: would His Holiness assist a correspondent seeking help with a baking problem?
It has happened before: in the 15th century, Pope Innocent VIII received a request from a pair of German noblemen asking if it would be OK to use butter when baking a bread eaten in the Saxony region known as stollen.
The stollen of this era was an austere affair. Designed to be eaten during fasting periods, it consisted of little more than flour, yeast and water. The story goes that church rules of the time forbade consuming butter or milk while fasting but the people of Saxony, who liked their dairy goods, were finding
it difficult to comply.
According to the Stollen Association of Dresden, Prince Ernst of Saxony and his brother approached the Pope to ask if he wouldn’t mind revoking the ban on butter. In 1491, “the Holy Father granted them their wish, sending his Butterbrief, or butter missive, to Dresden ... From then on, stollen bakers were allowed to use richer ingredients.”
The Christstollen baked in Dresden today for the festive season is a far cry from its predecessors. Stuffed with dried fruit, candied peel and nuts, it’s anything but austere, and is held in such high regard that only a few bakers are permitted to label their stollen with an official seal of authenticity. It is undoubtedly a bread of substance; versions of stollen sold elsewhere in Germany and around the world are generally somewhat lighter but no less delicious.
With Lesley Russell’s recipe and the Thermomix to hand, you should have no need for divine intervention. You will, however, need time on your side as this recipe requires that you start it the day before baking. Stollen is a labour of love but the finished product keeps well for a week or so and freezes well. Get in early for Christmas and stash away a loaf now.
- Make the almond paste. Weigh the almonds into the mixing bowl and process 10 seconds/speed 9 to create fine ground almonds. Set aside in a small bowl.
- Add the icing sugar and zest to the mixing bowl and process 10 seconds/speed 9.
- Return the ground almonds and add the egg white. Mix 15 seconds/speed 5 to form a dough. Scrape out the mixture and knead it together on the bench. Divide the mixture into four, each piece should weigh around 100 grams. Only one piece will be used for the stollen, but keep the remaining three pieces to make Sicilian pasta di mandorle. Refrigerate the paste until needed.
- Scrape out the mixing bowl thoroughly but there’s no need to wash it, then make the dough. Pour the milk into the mixing bowl and heat 5 minutes/60 degrees/speed soft.
- Add the flour, sugar, salt, yeast and egg. Start the machine, Knead/3 minutes, and after 40 seconds add the butter in small pieces. Allow the dough to have the full 3 minutes of kneading; it should be a soft buttery dough with a lovey sheen—it may be a little sticky but will be fine the next day. Scrape the dough into a container, cover and refrigerate it overnight.
- Next day, take the dough out of the fridge and allow it to come to room temperature while you prepare the fruit mix. Weigh the apricots into the mixing bowl and chop 5 seconds/speed 5. Add the remaining fruit and the almonds then stir them around with a spatula to combine.
- Dust the bench lightly with flour and roll the dough out to a rectangle basically the size an A4 sheet of paper.
- Scatter the fruit mixture over the dough then roll it up Swiss Roll style and knead together to distribute fruit; don’t worry if the fruit breaks through the dough. Form the dough into a ball and once again place in a container, cover and allow to relax for 20 minutes.
- Roll the dough out again, only this time a few centimetres larger than A4 size.
- Roll out one piece of the almond paste so it is the same length as the long side of the dough. Place it along the edge and then roll the dough over it to from a large sausage shape.
- Place the roll on a baking tray with the seam down. Allow it to rest until soft and risen; 2 hours or so depending on the temperature of the day.
- Heat the oven to 200C. Bake the stollen in the centre of the hot oven for 30–35 minutes or until it feels firm and sounds hollow when tapped on the base; it will get quite brown during baking.
- Transfer to a cooling rack. While the stollen is still hot, brush it with melted butter letting it soak in a bit, then dredge it heavily with icing sugar on the top and sides. Allow to cool.