German Stollen Bread and Its Connection to the Nativity, (Bonus: the Best Stollen Recipe)

 Dresden Stollen, also known as ChristStollen or WeihnachtsStollen, is one of the oldest Christmas traditions dating back to the Middle Ages. The Dresden Stollen was first mentioned in official documents in 1474 on a bill at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in Dresden, Germany. This cake-like bread was made during the Advent season, a period of fasting and preparation before Christmas. Due to the papal restrictions on butter and milk during the fasting season, Stollen during that time was typically made of only flour, yeast, and water.

It wasn’t until Prince Ernst, Elector of Saxony, wrote to Pope Innocent VIII and asked to revoke the ban on butter to be able to enjoy a richer tasting Christmas Stollen. Their request was granted and in 1491 the Pope sent his Butterbrief decree to Dresden, allowing the bakers of Dresden to use butter in their breads during Advent.

Yet, around 1500, the bakers guild in Dresden restricted the number of bakers who could make Stollen, giving their special permission to only 150 Dresden bakers. These bakers were allowed to sell their buttery Stollen at the local Christmas market known as the Dresdner Strizelemarkt, which is the oldest known Christmas market in the world today.

Over time, the bakers improved the Stollen recipe, making them rich and dense with flavorful spices, nuts, and dried fruit, and covered in powdered sugar or sugar icing. The locals referred to it as Strizel and the new and improved version of the bread was seen as a delicacy fit for kings. In the 1560s, the townspeople would gift their kings and rulers with a festive Stollen at Christmas. The typical Stollen back then weighed about 4.4 lbs (2 kg), but some celebratory Stollen have weighed up to 1.7 tons.

You can still find this rich Strizel at the same Dresdener Strizelemarkt today during the holiday season. Look for the official Dresden ChristStollen seal, which is made by one of 130 bakeries according to traditional recipes and is authenticated by the Stollen Association. You may also see a celebratory Stollen being paraded around during Christmas festivities at the Strizelemarkt, where they can get as long as 72.1 meters long and is cut with a ceremonial Stollen knife.

Many say that the Stollen loaf and the sugar icing on top represents the baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes, the way you would find him in the nativity story. Others say that the hump of the Stollen represents the camel’s back upon which the three kings traveled to see the newborn king. The candied fruit represents the jewels the three kings brought with them as gifts for baby Jesus. Either way, the tradition of a Christmas Stollen has been a large part of the way people for centuries have remembered and celebrated the birth of Christ. Ingredients:

  • 7 C Flour
  • 2-1/2 Tbsp active dry Yeast
  • app. 2 C Milk
  • ¾ C + 3 Tbsp Sugar
  • Grated peel of one Lemon
  • ½ tsp. Cardamom
  • ½ tsp. Mace
  • 2-1/2 tsp. Salt
  • 1 lb Butter
  • 2-1/3 C Raisins
  • ¾ C Candied Lemon Peel, chopped fine
  • ½ C + 3-1/2 tsp. Candied Orange Peel, chopped fine
  • 1-1/3 C Almonds, ground
Directions:
  • Set out ALL ingredients and allow to sit overnight in a warm room.
  • On the next day, sift the flour into a bowl. Make a well in the middle. Put the yeast, 3 tsp of the sugar, and half of the milk into the well. Mix this with just a little of the flour. Allow to sit just until the yeast starts bubbling. Work the dough together, adding the remaining sugar, salt, spices, softened (but NOT melted!) butter, and just enough milk to make a smooth, non-sticky dough. Knead well several minutes. (This initial kneading is the most important!)
  • Sprinkle app. 1 Tbsp flour over the raisins. Shake to cover. Knead raisins, finely-chopped lemon and orange peel, and ground almonds into the dough only until evenly distributed.
  • Form the dough into a ball. Cover, and let sit in a warm place for 30 minutes. Knead through. Cover and let sit again for 30 – 50 minutes.
  • Heat oven to 375 – 400 degrees.
  • Butter a large baking sheet. Make the dough into several Stollen loaves*. Bake for 70 – 90 minutes, until golden. If the surface of the Stollen becomes brown too quickly, cover the top with a piece of buttered parchment paper.
  • While still warm, butter the Stollen well. Sprinkle first with Raw Sugar, then Vanilla Sugar. Finally, sift powdered sugar thickly over the entire Stollen.
  • Cover and allow to sit for at least a week—best if longer! (I prefer at least 2 weeks!)
Notes:
  • A Stollen form is quite easy and universal throughout German-speaking countries. It represents the swaddled Christ Child. Roll out the dough on a floured surface. Fold one end over the other to ALMOST the other side, leaving a small edge. On this particular large Stollen, the edge should be about an inch wide.
  • You can find Vanilla Sugar at certain specialty stores, especially if you live close to a German one! It is also easily made by splitting two vanilla beans in half, lengthwise and kind of digging them into 5 lbs of sugar. Store this in a sealed container to “age” for at least 2 weeks. Keep stored in an airtight container. Otherwise, you can also substitute 1 tsp Vanilla Flavoring for 1 Tbsp Vanilla Sugar.
Sources: Live Like A German and DresdenerStollen