Friday, December 22, 2006

Aunt Greta's Christmas Stollen

Holiday food traditions are a miraculous mix of time, place, ideology and ingredients. Often times, a single person can be the catalyst for a family culinary tradition. They bring it to the table as a delectable gift, wrapped with their own cherished memories and life experiences. Through this act, they offer us a bit of themselves, and enrich our holiday celebrations.

In our family, there is the story of Margareta West, better known as Aunt Greta. Born in Kleinheubach, Germany in the year 1919, Greta began working as a domestic when she was 17 years old in the town of Offenbach. Greta worked for Frau Knudle for 23 years where she learned to cook and bake. At the age of 40, Greta was sponsored by her friend Sophie and came to the United States in 1959. In New York City, she worked for a doctor who resided on West End Avenue, and eventually met others who had immigrated from her hometown in Germany. She was introduced to my mother’s Uncle Karl by mutual friends and married him in 1961.

Throughout my lifetime, our family has enjoyed Aunt Greta’s homemade stollen at Christmas. Stollen is rich fruit bread made with yeast that originated in Central Germany in the town of Dresden. The characteristic oblong shape, with a ridge down the center is said to represent the Christ Child in swaddling clothes, and it is sometimes called the “Christstollen.” Greta’s stollen was enriched with butter and eggs, adorned with brilliant red, green and gold candied fruit, flavored with almonds and citrus zest and generously dusted with powdered sugar.

These days, Greta’s hair is snowy white and she moves a bit more slowly. She has essentially retired from baking. Her words are sprinkled with German phrases like “Ach du Lieber.” She is wry, usually opinionated and direct, and always incredibly generous.

I was of the impression that Greta’s recipe was an old European family heirloom, perhaps committed to memory. As I became more interested in food, I asked her to teach me how to make it and spent a Saturday at her home in Laurelton, New York learning her techniques. There, she produced a tattered, yellow clipping from a defunct Long Island newspaper, dated December 13, 1968, some nine years after she’d arrived in the United States.

At first, I was taken aback. Did this mean there was none of the history I’d typically associated with Greta’s stollen? But, when I read the recipe clipping, my perspective began to change. It showed an enticing picture of a plump stollen decorated with whole candied-cherries and flanked by two cups of black coffee. The article described the importance of home baked goods to the German “kaffeeklatsch” tradition. The phrase translates as “coffee chat” and refers to conversation or gossip enjoyed by German hausfraus who gather for a cup of coffee and a sweet treat.

I think the newspaper clipping was a tangible reminder for Greta of community and family traditions from her original home, and as she adapted the recipe and made it here, it was her way of sharing a festive custom from her homeland with her new family. I am now the keeper of that original newspaper feature that Greta clipped so many years ago when it likely inspired a fond holiday memory in her own mind that she generously passed on to us each year. Here’s the recipe:

Aunt Greta’s “Old Time Stollen"

¾ cup milk
1 pkg. active dry yeast
¼ cup warm water (105 to 115 degrees)
3 ½ cups enriched flour (divided)
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup butter
6 tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon grated lemon and orange peel
2 egg yolks
1 cup mixed, diced candied fruits
¾ cup golden raisins
¼ cup whole glace cherries
¼ cup slivered or sliced blanched almonds

Scald milk; cool to lukewarm. Dissolve yeast in warm water. Add to lukewarm milk. Sift 1 ½ cups flour with salt; stir in to yeast mixture and cover. Let rise in warm place until doubled. Cream butter until light and fluffy. Add sugar gradually, while creaming. Add lemon and orange peel. Add egg yolks one at a time, beating well after each addition. Gently combine egg mixture with raised dough. Add fruits and almonds. Roll out on a lightly floured board or canvas into circle, about 10 inches in diameter. Fold over once into traditional pocketbook shape. Place on greased baking sheet. Cover and let rise until doubled. Bake at 350 degrees until golden brown 35-40 minutes. Brush with melted butter. Cool on rack. Before serving, sprinkle with powdered sugar.

On Christmas morning, we will be enjoying Aunt Greta’s stollen and coffee, now prepared by me, chatting about the diversity of our family and our yuletide traditions and wishing Greta a hearty Merry Christmas, or Frohe Weihnachten!

Technorati Tags:

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved


Lee Parker said...

I enjoyed reading your blog- not only beacause it gives us a recipe of making traditional strollen (which my mom is vey keen to make)

but also beause of your Aunt Gretta's life story.
This year I also tried my hand in writing recipe which I got from my friend....
Merry christmas!!

Jann said...

Thank you for telling us about your Aunt-how fascinating,love family stories. Very interested in your site-you are one busy person. Would like to email you a question about Anne Willan.......

Patricia Scarpin said...


Not only your recipes are delicious but the stories you write are wonderful to read!

My grandmother was German, too, and she used to prepared good things for us when she came to visit (she lived in a different state).

I'm tagging this stollen recipe. It brings me so many memories!

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

Thank you, Patricia! I'm glad this brought back nice memories. Food is really the catalyst for so many wonderful things in our lives, don't you think? Happy New Year!

Foodiewife said...

I just stumbled across your blog, because I was looking for a good German recipe for stollen. I have German roots, too.

Come and visit my blog where I share a bit of my Bavarian heritage!