During the Christmas season, we bake. We bake rich, show-offy treats for big parties and once-a-year gatherings. But we also bake for the quiet moments, the times that will become treasured memories. And there’s nothing better to offer with that early morning cup of coffee you pour for a visiting relative or to slip into a hungry child’s hand than a slice of panettone or stollen -- fragrant, yeasty holiday breads that are festive just to look at and sweetly satisfying to eat.
These European classics, though available in commercial versions, have an understated elegance when updated and made from scratch with homemade candied citrus peel, spirit-soaked dried fruits, and festive touches such as glace cranberries. Although their different shapes and textures suggest otherwise, panettone (tall and light) and stollen (long and dense) are made from a basic butter- and sugar-enriched yeast dough. Panettone typically contains candied orange peel and raisins; traditional stollen had candied lemon peel and dried cherries as well. The extra fruit and sometimes even a layer of marzipan, plus added milk and flour, contribute to the compact shape of classic stollen versus the loftier panettone.
Candied citrus peel, glace cranberries and spirit-soaked fruits are easy to make, but require some advance planning as well as, for the peel, overnight drying time. For mixed peels, select two or more varieties of the wonderful citrus in the farmers markets this season -- California navel oranges, Meyer lemons, pink grapefruits and pomelos. Look for the most vibrant colors.
Carefully remove the skins, keeping the pith attached, and blanch the peels three times in boiling water to remove bitterness. Simmer different varieties of citrus rind in different pots of simple syrup (so that the flavors remain distinct) until they are semitransparent, one to two hours, and dry overnight. Pomelo rinds, which are porous, cook more quickly than other citrus peels, and should be done in about an hour. Meanwhile, for making stollen, simmer handfuls of firm, bright cranberries in another pot of simmering syrup.
Plumping the dried and candied fruits in spirits for a half-hour or hour allows the flavors of the fruit to infuse the spirits and permeate the dough. Don’t omit tiny touches such as fresh vanilla bean and two varieties of raisins for the panettone, or more than one kind of peel for the stollen -- the elegance is in the details.
To make the panettone, mix, knead and allow the bread its first rising while the fruit soaks, then punch down the dough and add the rum-soaked raisins and candied orange peel. Bake the panettone in free-standing panettone liners (like large muffin-tin liners) instead of pans.
A fragrant combination of orange, Meyer lemon, grapefruit and pomelo rind is fantastic for the stollen, but any combination is wonderful. While the fruit soaks, mix and knead the dough, then work in the dried and candied fruits and let the dough rise. Meanwhile, roll marzipan (sweet almond paste) into ropes, two for each loaf of stollen. Shape the risen dough into two large ovals, place the ropes in the middle of each oval and fold the dough’s edges over the marzipan. Taper and pinch the ends and allow the dough to rise again before baking.
Delicious when freshly baked, these citrusy sweet loaves are also delightful if the flavors mellow for several days. Either way, they’re beautiful gifts worth keeping around this holiday.
In a medium bowl, combine the raisins, currants, candied peel and candied cranberries. Pour the brandy over the fruit and let stand 1 hour. Drain, reserving the brandy. Pat the fruit dry with paper towels, return to a clean bowl and toss with 2 tablespoons of the flour.
In the bowl of a standing mixer or in a large bowl, sprinkle the yeast over one-fourth cup warm water (110 to 115 degrees) and stir until dissolved. Stir in 1 teaspoon of the sugar. Let stand until the yeast begins to bubble, about 5 minutes.
In a small saucepan over medium heat, heat the milk, salt and remaining sugar to warm (110 to 115 degrees). Add the milk mixture, vanilla extract and eggs to the yeast mixture and beat in a mixer or by hand with a fork or wooden spoon until combined. Beat in the reserved brandy. Add 2 cups of the flour and beat until smooth. Cut the butter into small pieces and beat in. Beat in enough of the remaining flour until the dough forms a ball.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. Flatten the dough out, then knead in the candied fruit, adding flour to the board as needed.
Shape the dough into a ball and put the dough into a buttered glass bowl. Turn the dough buttered side up and loosely cover. Let rise until doubled in size, about 2 hours.
Punch down the dough and divide into two equal parts. Place one half aside. Roll the other half into a 12-by-8-inch oval. Brush with melted butter.
Cut the marzipan into quarters and roll each quarter into a 12-inch rope. Put two of the ropes alongside each other along the length of the dough, leaving a 1 1/2 - to 2-inch border between the two ropes in the center of the rolled-out dough. Fold the long side of the dough over to the center of the oval. Fold over the other long side so that it overlaps the center by about 1 inch, pressing down gently but firmly. Lightly taper the ends of the loaf. Put the finished loaf on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Brush with melted butter. Repeat with the reserved dough.
Let the two loaves rise until each has doubled in size. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Bake about 30 to 40 minutes until dark golden brown. Dust loaves with powdered sugar.
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