Every year around this time, I long for stollen, the buttery, rum-flavored German Christmas bread studded with almonds and raisins. My craving for it was sparked, I suppose, by my Swiss-German ancestry but fueled by decades of investigation in search of great stollen no matter where in the world I'm living and a perennial desire for anything rich.
This year, I moved to Los Angeles, and when my stollen hunger arose, I started visiting bakery shops all over the Southland looking for a bread that would satisfy me.
The name comes from stulle, a German slang term for bread. According to legend, the bakers of Dresden, Germany, invented it around 1697 to celebrate the elevation of Augustus Frederick, the Elector of Saxony, to the Polish throne.
The palace bakers were instructed to create "a king's bread." Cost was no object. Expensive ingredients like almonds, nuts, raisins, orange peel, essence of rose and rum were imported. Because the coronation occurred during the Christmas season, the bakers shaped the loaves to resemble a baby in swaddling clothes in respect for the Christ Child.
Ask any baker: Stollen is a labor of love. And like any birth, it's quite a production. The dough requires three proofings (or rises)--four, if you count the sponge. Hands, not molds, are used to shape the loaves.
A good stollen smacks of butter and hints of mace and cardamom. It has poundcake's density and is moist with rum-soaked fruits and the oils of citrus peel and nuts. The color should be golden; a gray tone can mean the dough was over-mixed. Kept in a cool place, stollen stays good for three months. (Around my place it never survives through New Year's Day.)
Stollen heralds the start of the Christmas season in Europe, appearing in bakeries around October. France, Scandinavia and Italy have their versions, but the Swiss, Germans and Austrians consider themselves the real tradition-bearers.
There are thousands of formulas, but bakers point to the Dresden stollen as the benchmark. It calls for a yeast dough enriched with starter, butter and sugar; the liquid usually is milk. It's flavored with almonds, macerated fruits (including citron and orange peels and raisins, both golden and dark) and spices (mace and cardamom). Europeans fault American bakers for adding cinnamon and cheap candied fruit.
Stollen should be evenly strewn with fruits and nuts--in fact, a good one contains equal weights of dough and fruit. Butter content can range from 20% to 50% of the dough. Some stollen, rich in eggs, are brioche-light.
Among the variations on this basic recipe, marzipan stollen (Mandelstollen) outsells the classic version in Southern California, perhaps because of its strong flavor. And many California bakers have come up with unusual combinations, such as cranberries and pistachios.
Back in Michigan, stollen was the star at my family's gatherings at both Thanksgiving and Christmas. My Swiss-German grandmother's version was a coarse crumb bread, studded with raisins, brushed with butter and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar. That was my definition of stollen for two decades.
Later, when I worked as a cook in hotels in ski resorts in Switzerland and Austria, I found that stollen-tasting ranked with skiing as a pastime. My grandmother's ultra-lean stollen turned out to be a diet version next to the dense slices enriched with citrus peel and nuts that I regularly snitched from my employers' pastry kitchens.
It turned out that no two bakers agreed on the formula. Stollen I considered bizarre at first--versions with poppy seed or quark (fresh cheese)--quickly grew on me.
When I moved to Chicago in the late '70s, I blew out my seams on a stollen even richer than most I'd eaten in Europe. Berlin-born Lutz Olkawitz, then executive pastry chef at the Drake Hotel, made a legendary artery-clogging stollen. Not only did he put butter in the dough, he bathed each loaf as it came from the oven in more butter (followed by a shower of vanilla and powdered sugars).
It sold for $12 a pound in the early '80s. That's if you were fortunate to get on his list of 350 names. Luckily, my girlfriend Jolene, also a pastry chef, volunteered as his weekend assistant. (Olkawitz, now retired, still bakes stollen with Jolene every other Christmas, but their 40 loaves are given strictly as gifts.)
My craving followed me to Hong Kong in 1989, and finding stollen there turned out to be easy. All the fancy Western-style hotels had European chefs and retail shops. The quality of the baked goods was high because the consumer demand was there. Many of these stollen cost more than $20 a loaf.
Here in Southern California, I find it isn't hard to turn up stollen--at least in season. But none I've tried came close in flavor, density and texture to those I'd had in Europe, Hong Kong or Chicago. Few local professional bakers start their doughs or macerate fruit before mid-December. Most I talked to say they're too busy with Thanksgiving and Hanukkah until then and, besides, demand isn't that great. It's a sentimental item to most Europeans. And price is a factor. Not many people will pay more than $10 for stollen even though the ingredients are much more expensive.
Nick Teichtmann, owner of Old Vienna Strudel in Culver City, actually quit making stollen three years ago. "I can't compete, price-wise, with the machine-made product," he says. "In the time it takes me to make 15 stollen, I can make 30 strudels."
Of the commercial bakers who do make stollen, more than a few cut corners. To understand why a mass-produced stollen sells for $4, read the ingredient list: margarine mixed with vegetable shortening in place of butter, candied fruit, imitation flavorings, a stingy amount of cheap raisins. The loaves are formed by molds, not by hand, to produce a uniform shape. Dough softeners and ascorbic acid are added to manipulate the texture and the shelf life.
In an informal tasting, The Times Food Section bought plain and marzipan stollen from Tina's German Deli in Santa Monica, Alpine Village in Torrance, Emil's Pastry in Los Angeles, Caprice in Santa Monica, the Omni Hotel Los Angeles, the Regal Biltmore, Trader Joe's, Ernst Mueller's Fine Baking, Zov's Bakery in Tustin and German Home Bakery in Cosa Mesa.
In early December, at the time of our tasting, many other bakeries that sell stollen were not yet in production. Prices ranged from $3.39 (Trader Joe's) to $26 (Caprice).
What did we like?
All tasters liked the texture, the hint of mace and cardamom and overall flavor of the Dresden-style stollen made by Ernst Mueller, chef-owner of Fine Baking (5616 W. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles;  931-5600). A one-pound loaf sells for $8. It is also available from the coffee shop of the Omni Los Angeles Hotel, Downtown.
Mueller, a fourth-generation baker, says making stollen is more a sentimental than a profit-making activity for him. Stollen accounts for just 1% of his holiday baking. He macerates fruit for five days and uses clarified butter for better flavor.
In the marzipan category, tasters preferred the strong almond flavor, plentiful raisins and moistness of stollen from Zov's Bistro-Bakery (17440 E. 17th St., Tustin;  838-8855, Ext. 3). It sells for $12.95 for a two-pound loaf.
Owner Zov Karamardian hires a German-born baker every year to produce 168 stollen. Although it's not a hugely popular item, she says Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without it. And her regular customers from Europe look forward to it.
Overall, the locally made stollen were lighter in texture, leaner and less aromatic than the versions I grew up eating. All lacked a certain depth of flavor that comes from the long macerating of fruit and slow ripening dough and maturing of the loaves.
Unlike cake or croissants, stollen should not boast of being "freshly made." Here, at least, age has its rewards.