In Germany today, Stollen is for Christmas and to many, it is not Christmas without proper Stollen, often specifically called Christstollen or Weihnachtsstollen. The name itself just means a round, thick object which is why in modern German, it also refers to a gallery in a mine (from the wooden supports) and the cleats of football shoes. But when it comes to food, it is highly specific.
The origins of Stollen are as thoroughly researched as they are trivial. Fine yeast breads, enriched with various more or less luxurious ingredients, probably existed long before they enter the historical record. They went by many local names, and as a result, regardless of what legends were crafted around these mentions in later years, a Stollen showing up in any medieval source is unlikely to be what we know by that name today. In what is likely the first mention, surviving only in a later translation, the Stollen delivered to the bishop of Naumburg by the bakers from 1329 onwards are not defined beyond being long and made of fine flour. The association of Stollen baking with the papal permission of 1490 to use butter in Advent, often mentioned in advertising, is tenuous at best. Such indulgences were made numerous times in history simply because olive oil, the staple culinary fat of fast days in Italy, was not easily available in Germany.
The kind of yeasted, enriched cake that modern Stollen descends from is recorded in a number of recipes. Marx Rumpolt describes creative uses in 1581:
41 Prepare a dough with milk, eggs, and fine white flour, add a little beer yeast, and make a good dough that is not too stiff and do not oversalt it. Set it in a warm place so that it rises nicely, then turn it out onto a clean board and put in small black raisins. Shape long cakes (Strützel) and throw them in hot butter to fry them, thus they will rise nicely. Serve them warm or cold and strew them with sugar, thus they are a good dish (gut Gebackens).
(41 is a recipe for cherry-filled fritters)
43 Take a new pitcher, grease it thoroughly on the inside with melted butter, and put such a dough into it so that the pitcher is half full. When it has risen so that it is full, slide it into a hot oven and let it bake. Take it out, let it cool, break the pitcher and remove the shards. Serve it in one piece, then it will look like a pitcher.
44 But if you want to serve such a baked dish that is nicely warm, take small earthen pitchers or pots one finger high, slide them into the oven with that (the dough) and bake them, and break the pots or pitchers so the cakes stay whole. Take fresh May butter and melt it. Turn over the cakes in it and strew them well with white sugar. Serve them warm, that is a good warm dish.
Even the word Strützel (Striezel in modern German), an alternative name for stollen, makes an appearance, but still these are not Stollen. Like Stollen, though, these cakes include raisins and are brushed with butter and covered in powdered sugar. What they aren’t is associated with Christmas. Even though the recipe calls for fresh butter, they could be made in winter. It would be an extravagant luxury, but that never stopped Rumpolt.
The association with Christmas seems to come from Saxony, where it is still celebrated for tourists in a very lucrative manner. Interestingly, what created the specialness of Stollen was not its own development, but the way other cakes changed. In the course of the 19th century, heavy, rich yeast cakes with spices and dried fruit increasingly fall out of favour, surviving only as regional and festive specialties. North Germany still has the Klaben or Klöben, a very similar preparation, that is recorded in the Hamburgisches Koch-Buch of 1830:
IX No. 88: To bake good Klöben
Take 10 pounds of flour, 2 pounds of butter, half a Loth of cinnamon, half a pound of currants, a quarter pound of sugar, 1 cup of syrup, 2 cups of large raisins, 4 beer glasses of warm milk, 2 glasses of yeast, and prepare it as Hannoverschen Kuchen. From this dough, you can prepare 5 Klöben, brush them with egg yolk, and bake them in an oven.
IX No 106: Hannoverscher Butter Cake
Take two pounds of good wheat flour, a quarter pound of ground sugar, cardamom, three egg yolks, and grated lemon peel in an earthen bowl. Lay one pound of butter and a little salt in the centre of the flour and pour on a large beer glass full of warm milk and a little less warm white beer yeast. Stir it all well together and if the dough is not soft enough, add a little more warm milk. When all is stirred well and the dough detaches from the bowl, work them thoroughly with your hands on a table and roll it out as evenly as the sheet on which it is meant to be baked. …
This is a good technique for making a rich, heavy yeast dough, and though the recipe for the Hannoverschen cake is decidedly not a Stollen – it is rolled out on a sheet, dotted with butter, and covered in sugar like a Prophetenkuchen – this is how Stollen dough is traditionally prepared. So again, I suspect what we are seeing here is a set of techniques that are applied and combined across a wide range of dishes being codified into a definite recipe and furnished with a name by the rules-loving nineteenth century. Johann Friedrich Baumann’s Der Dresdner Koch of 1844 gives us the proper way of making it:
Butterstolle or Butterzopf, Saxon / Gateau de noele à la Saxonne
One Mäschen of flour is warmed in a bowl, sieved, and returned to the bowl, and a well is formed (in the flour). Four tablespoons of fresh, thick yeast are mixed with one tablespoon of sugarand mixed into an eighth of a Kanne of warm milk, poured into the well, and a soft yeast dough starter (Hefenstückchen) is mixed and dusted with flour. Cover it with a warmed napkin folded four times and set it in a lukewearm place. When the starter has risen high, add two eggs, eight Loth of sugar, two Loth of bitter almonds ground to a powder with a little water, salt, and, if desired, a good pinch (lit: a knife tip, Messerspitze) of mace. The whole is worked into a firm and rather dry dough and worked well. In case the liquid is not sufficient, add a little more warm milk. Then twenty to twenty-four Loth of washed, dry butter that has been worked to be pliable is cut up and worked into the dough, first one half, then the other. Then you add three quarters of a pound of large, stoned raisins and one quarter pound of small raisins, four to eight Loth of slivered sweet almonds, and four Loth similarly cut citron, all of which must first be brought to lukewarm temperature. Work it in well, dust the dough with flour, cover it with a napkin folded four times, and set it to rise in a lukewearm place where the butter does not melt. The bowl must always feel lukewarm, never hot. One the dough has once again risen high, it is turned out on a floured table,gently and easily pushed together into a round loaf and then rolled out into a log (Walze) of sixteen to eighteen inches that is slightly thicker in the middle than at both ends. The rolling pin is then placed lengthwise along the middle and pushed down, and half of the dough rolled out to twice its width. This is folded back onto the tall half again so that a seam (an edge) is formed along the top. This Stolle is now deftly turned out on a double-layered, buttered paper by lifting with the hands at both ends. If you have one, lift it onto a metal baking sheet. After about ten minutes, because the Stolle is only allowed to rise a little more, it is brushed to shininess with lukewarm water of melted butter, put into a moderate oven, and baked for three quarters of an hour to a fine colour. Removed from the oven, it is brushed with melted clear butter and, once cold, dusted with sugar.
This Stolle is always served cold and lasts for many days. It is mainly enjoyed at Christmas when it is found everywhere, even among the poorer classes.
We can legitimately question whether the poor of Dresden really enjoyed this in 1844, which was the height of Old Europe’s last great hunger crisis. We cannot quibble with the fact that this is clearly Stollen as we know it. It is clearly a traditional and established recipe by this time, good enough for a high-status cook to include in a work intended to carry it beyond the borders of Saxony. As so often happens, the recipe, once fixed, remained more or less frozen. It is still broadly how we make Dresdner Stollen, though bitter almonds no longer feature routinely and there is often more variety of candied fruit peel involved.
I enjoy Stollen at Christmas and always make some to give away to family and friends as well. However, as a fan of industrial cuisine, I do not use the traditional recipe most years. My go-to reference is the Quarkstollen from the Dr Oetker Schulkochbuch, first included in the 1937 edition. This is the more detailed version from the 1963 Backbuch:
Dough: 500g wheat flour, 1 sachet Dr Oetker Backin (baking powder), 200g sugar, 1 sachet Dr Oetker vanillin sugar, a little salt, 4 drops Dr Oetker baking aroma bitter almond, 1 vial Dr Oetker rum aroma, 4 drops Dr Oetker baking aroma lemon, 1 pinch ground cardamom, 12 pinch ground mace, 2 eggs, 125g butter or margarine, 50g beef fat, 250g quark (well pressed), 125g currants (washed and well drained), 125-150g raisins (washed and well drained), 125-150g almonds or hazelnuts (ground or chopped), 50-100g candied citron peel (diced).
To brush: 50g butter or margarine (melted)
To dust: 50g powdered sugar (2 heaped tablespoons)
Mix flour and baking powder and sift them onto a board (tabletop). Press a well into the middlke and add sugar, vanillin sugar, spices, and eggs. Work into a thick mash with some of the flour. Distribute the cold fat cut into pieces, the finely chopped beef fat, the quark (it is improved by being passed through a sieve), the currants and raisins, the almonds (hazelnuts) and the citron peel on top. Cover the fruit with flour and work all ingredients into a smooth dough quickly, working from the middle. If it is sticky, add some more flour. Shape the dough into a Stollen and lay it out on a baking sheet covered in greased parchment.
Gas: Pre-heat 5 minutes on large flame, bake at 1/2 large flame, setting 2-3 1/2
Electric: Pre-heat 10 minutes at top 2 – bottom 3, bake at top 2 – bottom 2 (if necessary, switch to top 1 – bottom 2 after 45 minutes). Temperature setting pre-heat at 250, bake at 160-180.
Baking time: 50-60 minutes
Brush the Stollen with fat and dust it with powdered sugar immediately after baking.
Quark, a kind of cheese curd, became very popular in the early 20th century and has remained so. It adds to the dough’s rich substance. reducing the need for butter and eggs, the greatest cost driver with Stollen. The recipe itself is a transparent marketing device to sell the myriad products of Dr Oetker’s better-baking-through-chemistry range. Regardless of this, it is not just an economical recipe, it is also delicious and produces a reliably well-behaved dough that I turn into traditional Stollen, bite-sized Stollenkonfekt, or mini-Stollen suitable for smaller families.