I’m old enough to remember the time when stollen was not only a rare presence at Christmas dinners, but few people even knew what it was.
That seems to be in the past now. In the last decade or so, it has experienced a meteoric rise in popularity, becoming one of the most sought-after winter holiday treats, almost as tightly associated with the season as gingerbread cookies and peppermint candy.
The article below will break down where this seminal German treat came from, why it is associated with Christmas, and the road it took before becoming what it is today.
What is Stollen?
Likely the most famous German Christmas food, stollen or Christstollen, is a dense cake-like sweet bread straddled with various ingredients like candied or dried fruit, nuts, spices, and rum-softened raisins, sultanas, or currants.
The most basic stollen bread is made with yeast, water, and flour, but over the years, it’s become common to enrich the dough with ingredients like butter, milk, egg, vanilla extract, and rum. Modern stollen is almost always very heavily spiced, with cinnamon and cardamom considered essential additions.
Interestingly enough, the dough tends to be low in sugar (and some bakeries skip it altogether), as the bakers consider the sweetness of raisins, marzipan, candied fruit, and peel to be more than enough.
Usually, stollen is shaped like a large log (4.4 lbs being considered the traditional weight), but modern manufacturers play around with not only the weight, with smaller logs becoming more and more popular, but form as well, with small stollen “bites” and individual slices becoming more and more common.
Why is Stollen Eaten at Christmas?
With names like Christstollen and Weihnachtsstollen (“Weihnachten” is a German word for Christmas Eve), it’s no surprise that stollen is consumed during the holiday season. The question is, how did it become associated with the holidays?
The accounts vary about when it originated: some sources claim that the oldest stollen bread was baked in Dresden in 1329 as an offering to the Bishop of Nauruburg (there are records of sweet raisin bread at a monastery near Leipzig in Naumburg dated with the year 1330).
Others that it’s an entire century (and then some) younger, first being baked in early 1400 during the Advent season.
Apparently, the stollen was supposed to be a symbolic religious treat (the story about flattering the visiting Bishop does sound believable when we consider this detail). What is it supposed to symbolize? There are two versions that I could find:
The first, and the more famous version, claims that the stollen bread symbolizes baby Jesus Christ swaddled in white cloth (hence the powdered sugar covering the bread).
The second and lesser-known one claims that the stollen symbolizes not the baby Jesus himself but the camel carrying the gifts for Christ when he was born. The humps on the top of the loaf represent the camel’s humps, while the candied fruits and nuts represent the gifts the camel was carrying.
Either way, one thing is clear: whether it was the result of political flattery or not, the bread was designed as a symbol of the healing Christ’s birth bought upon the world.
The Different Types of Stollen:
At first glance, it may seem like a stollen is a stollen, regardless of the ingredients used. Similarly to how panettone is a panettone, irrespective of what fruits and nuts are used to enrich its dough, whether it’s filled with cream or not, whether it’s covered with chocolate or dusted with powdered sugar, and so on.
But Germans are apparently far stricter with their stollen bread classification than Italians have ever been with their panettone and pandoro. While a whole lot of different ingredients can be used to flavor stollen, each of them transforms the bread into an entirely separate variety. And not only that but for each variety to qualify as a genuinely authentic German stollen, the ingredients should be used at strict proportions:
Mandelstollen (ger. “almond stollen”) is an almond-filled stollen. For a stollen to qualify as a Mandelstollen, it’s not enough to simply add a handful of almonds to the dough. A stollen is only a Mandelstollen if it contains no less than 44 lbs of almonds per 220 lbs of flour.
Nussstollen (ger. “nut stollen”) is a stollen filled with hazelnuts, walnuts, or a blend of two. Similar to Mandelstollen, a stollen only qualifies as a Nussstollen if the proportions are kept at no less than 44 lbs of nuts per 220 lbs of flour. Instead of adding the crushed nuts to the dough outright, they’re mixed with sugar, milk, and (sometimes) egg whites to form a sweet paste, which is then spread atop the dough. Nussstollen is considered a Bavarian specialty. Sometimes, instead of being shaped like a classic log, the dough is cut and crossed to form a twist.
Mohnstollen (ger. “poppy seed stollen”) is relatively less known outside Germany, though it seems to be increasing in popularity from year to year. Like the Nussstollen filling, the poppy seeds are mixed with other ingredients like milk, sugar, and honey to form a sweet paste, then spread atop the stollen dough. Unlike Nusstollen, Mohnstollen isn’t formed into a twist.
Marzipanstollen (ger. “marzipan stollen”) is likely the most famous stollen variety after the classic candied fruit and nut-filled one. The marzipan is most commonly added to the center of the dough, either shaped into a small log itself (called “rope”) or as a thick sheet with the dough then wrapped around it. The stollen must contain no less than 5% of its weight in marzipan to qualify as a Marzipanstollen. Unlike most other stollen varieties, Marzipanstollen allows for substituting the more expensive almond marzipan for the lesser quality persipan. Persipan is a marzipan-like soft and chewy confectionery made with apricot or peach kernels. The kernels are detoxified before being used for persipan.
Butterstollen (ger. “butter stollen”) is similar to the classic stollen bread but uses higher amounts of butter, candied fruits, and nuts. An authentic Butterstollen must contain a minimum of 88 lbs of butter, with around 150 lbs of almonds and dried or candied fruits per 220 lbs of flour.
Quarkstollen (ger. “curd stollen”) is another lesser-known variety, especially outside its native Germany. It’s a stollen made with cottage cheese or quark. Authentic Quarkstollen requires using around 88 lbs of quark and 44 lbs of butter per 220 lbs of flour.
Dresdner Christstollen or Dresden Stollen is the seminal stollen variety, the one known best both in Germany and outside its borders. It’s the only stollen variety under a protected status, with the EU having granted it a PGI (protected geographic indication) scheme. As with most status-protected foods, Dresden Stollen is beholden to strict recipe guidelines and calls for a precise ratio of crucial ingredients.
Stollen Before and After “The Butter Debacle”: How Stollen Bread Became What It Is Today
Despite the actual date of its origin remaining a mystery, one thing is clear about stollen bread: the original version just wasn’t very good. See, it was made during the Advent season, when Christians kept strict fasts, so using ingredients like milk, butter, and eggs was a big no-no. All the more if you were baking a flattering gift for a visiting Bishop.
Apparently, the proto-stollen bread baked during the Advent season was made with just flour, oats, and water. Thus it was hard and largely tasteless. To give it a better texture and a bit of extra flavor, the bakers added yeast, candied peels, and raisins (eventually creating the bread served to the Bishop of Nauruburg), but the improvement was slight.
The bakers quickly discovered that the one thing that could make stollen bread feel and taste better was fat - a generous helping of it. There was just one problem: the only fast-approved fat they had access to was oil sourced from plants, and oil was expensive.
I know, I had trouble believing it too when I read it, but 15th-century Saxony was very different from 21st-century America. Between plant-based oil and all-natural butter, it was the latter that was more easily and cheaply available. Unfortunately, it was an animal-based product and thus strictly prohibited from being used and consumed during the Advent season (because, again, the Church was pretty strict about proper faithful Christians holding strict fasts during the period).
So they were at an impasse: the bakers and the Church. Saxon bakers needed access to butter to make Christmas stollen bread that would be good, and Church wasn’t about to allow breaking fast for something as base as having enjoyable bread. It was time to involve the big guns.
And the big guns unexpectedly came through: Prince Elector of Saxony Ernst and his brother Duke Albrecht decided to appeal to the Pope to get Saxon bakers special allowance to use butter for stollen and wrote him a letter in 1450.
The Pope (Nicholas V, at the time) denied the appeal. But the Saxon royals weren’t about to take the denial lying down. And thus began, what I imagine to be, the most polite yet relentless food fight: Saxon Princes were appealing to the Popes over and over for the right to use butter, and the Popes kept denying it with the same fervor.
It took forty years and five Popes until finally, in 1490, Pope Innocent VIII sent a letter to Prince Elector Frederick III (son of Ernst) that was basically: “fine, alright, you can use butter, but only for a certain price.” Well, the certain price for everyone else in Saxony: they had to pay 1/20 of a gold Gulden, with the funds going to the Freiberg Minster. The Prince-Elector, his family, and his household could use the butter for free (I suspect the Pope was really tired of getting the Prince’s letters at this point and buttered him up to forgo further arguments about the subject if you know what I mean).
The Pope’s letter came to be known as the “Butter Letter.” The fine for using butter was finally removed when Saxony became Protestant (Lutheran) in the 17th century.
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