Christmas in the kitchen, for me, is a time to start searching for those 'definitive' recipes. Seeing as the annual festival of getting fat and eating too much with some exchanging presents in between generally involves cooking the same dishes every year - mince pies, Christmas pudding, a roast, cabbage, sprouts, Christmas cake, cranberry sauce - I've been on the hunt for the past few years for recipes for these things that are so good I'll want to just go straight back to them next year, rather than continuing to experiment. So far, Delia's braised red cabbage with apple, Levi Roots' tropical Christmas pudding and Fiona Cairn's Christmas cake recipes are all lucky enough to have made it onto this list. My mum's mince pies are also a staple, but I long ago accepted that they'll only taste right if mum makes them herself, so they're not something I can really recreate on my own.
However, there's still a gap as far as stollen is concerned. Ever since I discovered this baked delight a few years ago - I can't actually remember when I had my first taste, but it had me hooked - I've tried every year to create the perfect stollen. For those of you who have never tried it, sort this out. It's a delicious cross between a bread and a cake, studded with dried fruit and nuts, with a thick vein of marzipan running through the middle. It's often glazed with butter and liberal amounts of icing sugar, and scented with spices like cardamom and cinnamon.
The first recipe I tried was from a book that came with our bread-making machine at home. I made the fruity dough in the breadmaker, stuffed it with marzipan and baked it. The result was rather like a giant, elongated hot cross bun. It was bready rather than cakey, with quite a loose crumb. It was delicious, especially toasted and buttered, but not really what I was after. Stollen should have quite a dense texture, closer to bread than cake. It's moist yet crumbly at the same time, often from the addition of ground almonds.
The next recipe I tried was Dan Lepard's sour cherry stollen. This was much closer to what I wanted: it had a lovely cakey texture and was even better after maturing, soaked in rum, sugar and butter, for a few days (although I obviously had to nibble a piece before I put it away for its little rum bath, just to quality control). It had a lovely cardamom flavour, which I think is essential to a good stollen - the combination of super-sugary marzipan and the citrus hit of cardamom is fabulous. It's like the gastronomic equivalent of getting a snowball in the face. But in a good way.
Last year, I tried Richard Bertinet's stollen recipe, which was in the delicious magazine Christmas issue. The main advantage of this recipe was that it made not one, not two, but four stollen loaves. It was quite involved - a lot of kneading and proving and folding fruit into dough, as well as making a 'creme d'amande' out of eggs, sugar, ground almonds and butter - but the end result was gorgeous. The crumb texture was very buttery, rather like a croissant, with a wonderful almond hit. We froze two of the stollen and my mum begged me on a monthly basis throughout the following year to allow her to defrost one and eat it.
This year, I think I'll probably make the Bertinet version again. However, this recipe for orange and pistachio stollen bars, another Dan Lepard creation, has been sitting in my Bookmarks folder for an entire year, since it appeared in the 2011 Observer Christmas food special. The other day I felt the urge to bake something festive, and these sprung to mind.
The advantage of these is that they are incredibly quick and easy to make. Pretty much everything just goes into a bowl, then a pan, then the oven, then your mouth. No kneading or proving, as you often get with the more bread-like stollen recipes. Yet the end result tastes pretty much exactly like real stollen. There's that dense, cakey crumb - made with the addition of cream cheese, which I think gives it its richness - the hit of cardamom, juicy pieces of raisin, crunchy pistachios, and finally the delicious grainy squidgyness of marzipan pieces. The crumb is also infused with orange extract, which gives it a delicious Christmassy flavour.
Also, because it's baked in a wide tray, you get more of the delicious crunchy, caramelised crust, which is one of the best bits of stollen. Particularly here where pieces of marzipan near the surface of the mixture bubble up in the oven and turn crunchy and toffee-like.
The best part of this is removing the warm cake from the oven, then brushing it with melted butter and dousing it in icing sugar. The smell as it bakes is sumptuous, filling the kitchen with the aroma of Christmas; fruit, spice, nuts and butter. Slicing the cake into squares is also deeply satisfying, particularly when crumbs or corners end up crumbling off and you have to eat them to neaten everything up.
While not a true stollen, these may just make it onto my list of 'go-to' Christmas recipes. All the flavour of stollen, with none of the faff. Apparently they keep for a good while if you're generous with the melted butter and sugar, and wrap them tightly in foil. But of course, if you're generous with the melted butter and sugar, you're going to want to devour them all in an indecently short amount of time, as I did. Fortunately my department at university has an actual thing that we call 'Cake Thursday', which involves sharing home-baked treats on a weekly basis. Without these human bins in which to dispose of all my baking, I would be well on the way to obesity right now. It's cold up in York. I need baked goods for insulation.
These little squares are the essence of Christmas. Whip up a batch to sustain you through the arduous weeks of shopping, card-writing and turkey-buying ahead. Make some and give them to your friends. Just make sure they don't have a nut allergy.
For the recipe, from Dan Lepard, click here.