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 small bowl, combine the orange peel, golden raisins, seedless raisins and rum and let stand 30 minutes.
In the bowl of a stand mixer or 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.
To the yeast mixture, add the eggs, egg yolks, remaining sugar, vanilla pod seeds and the salt. Beat until combined with the whisk attachment on a stand mixer, or with a whisk by hand. Beat in the flour until blended with a paddle attachment or by hand using a fork.
Beat in the softened butter (if not using a stand mixer, this may need to be done with your hands), a little at a time until dough has a glossy sheen and becomes ropey, about 5 minutes (10 minutes by hand).
Remove the dough from the bowl and knead on a lightly floured board about 10 minutes. Shape the dough into a ball and let rise in a lightly buttered bowl until doubled in bulk, 45 minutes to 1 hour.
Punch down the dough and lightly knead in the macerated candied orange peel and raisins. Divide the dough in half. Shape each half into a ball. Place 1 ball into each of two 5-inch-wide and 3-inch-deep paper panettone liners on a baking sheet. Cut a cross on the top of each of the balls of dough. Brush the tops with melted butter.
Let the panettones rise until doubled, about 45 minutes to 1 hour. Brush with butter. Put a second baking sheet under the panettones and bake in a 350-degree oven 30 to 35 minutes. When done, the panettones will be puffed and rich golden-brown.
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