Part of every ethnic culture is the food. Having Nan cook and bake her way through the story was easily accomplished. My research on traditional German foods began in my recipe file, moved through my 1965 edition of the Settlement Cookbook, and into a 1920 edition of the same book. The 1920 book I found on line was likely the one my grandmother used as a bride. Research never tasted so good. I hunted up recipes for German dishes I had not previously made. Strudel, schnitzel, and rouladen, to name a few. Stollen was a Christmas tradition from both the Bauer and Gurgel sides of my family. I made it one in the Ude family also. The following is an edited excerpt from Steeple in the Distance. Here Nan launches into the ritual Christmas baking.
Every Saturday since Thanksgiving, armed with recipes from her sister Lydia and a box of special ingredients, Trude Fisher made the trip out to the farm. Nan was introduced to English toffee, tiny sugary kisses, crispy macaroons, and long sticky hanks of taffy to pull. Trude’s hands were employed in rolling endless balls of molasses-sweetened pfeffernuesse and the pale springerle dough with the special rolling pin that embossed it. On this last Saturday before Christmas, Nan chose lebkuchen to bake and frost and now, also, the stollen. Trude had been secretive about her contribution, saying only that it was the best choice yet.
Speculating on Trude’s choice when she arrived would not get the stollen mixed now. As uncertain as she was, she wanted no distractions while she mixed the dough. With the stained instructions of Mutti’s in her hand, Nan began to gather the ingredients. Milk, eggs, and butter she had and in abundance. The nuts she had persuaded Vati and the boys to shell in the evenings. The promise of Christmas stollen made Seth a more willing slave than usual and he obligingly chopped the citron when asked. She consulted the recipe, added the flour, mixed it well and set it aside, covered, to proof. The first step was successfully completed.
…(Nan) she allowed the falling snow to lure her to the window. She watched absently until the striking clock reminded her to check the stollen. The pungent odor of the yeast filled her head and the room when she removed the covering cloth. A domed network of bubbles told her she had accomplished the beginning correctly. Nan pulled the bowl to the counter and consulted the recipe. She beat the eggs and softened butter, creaming them well before adding them to the sponge. Slowly she stirred in more flour until the mixture was stiff enough to knead. With lightly floured hands she began to pull and push the mass of dough. Back and forth she worked it, adding more flour in small amounts until it no longer stuck to the sides of the bowl. She tipped it onto the well-floured counter and began to knead in earnest. Toward herself and away, she worked it until the dough was satiny smooth under her fingers. Then she began to add the fruit and nuts. Piling a cupful on the dough, she sprinkled them with rum and began to knead them into the bread. Over and over she worked until the bits of nuts and fruits refused to stay in the bread. Crowded together in the elastic dough they pushed and shoved at each other, forcing their neighbors onto the floured counter. Nan’s arms ached, yet patiently she worked the last of the fallen bits back into the bread. Placed in a well-greased bowl and covered, she left it to rise.
After lunch Nan kneaded the stollen and divided it into loaves. These she neatly tucked into their pans and left them to rise. …(When) the stollen had risen to the tops of the pans Nan placed them in the oven and announced to everyone what time it should be checked. With all the talking and laughter she was certain to forget it and let it burn. The boys declared that impossible; their noses would detect when it was done.
Nan inspected the loaves carefully. She rapped lightly on them, listening for the hollow sound that indicated they were done. Twice, to a chorus of disappointed groans, she returned them to the oven. Finally, though, she was satisfied removed and tipped them from the pans onto their sides to cool. Rob rose and rummaged in the pantry. He returned triumphant. With the bread knife in one hand and a cutting board in the other, he sat down at the table to wait. Half an hour later Nan gave in to him. She brought the smallest loaf over and warned him to cut carefully. It was so fresh it would squish under the knife if he used too much force. They all watched. Nan brought more coffee and a plate of butter. With some trepidation, Nan bit into hers and sighed appreciatively while she chewed. The taste was every bit as good as when her mother made it. If she could manage to hide several of the loaves, they would have their Christmas stollen this year.
We had our Christmas stollen. The one in the picture was our last loaf. The butter in the frosting was not softened sufficiently, hence the little bumps. But, flavored with a liberal dose of spiced rum, the taste matters more than the looks. That the loaf has barely survived the day gives evidence to the truth of the statement.
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