Stollen is my 'alternative' Christmas cake. I don't like Christmas food, and have always had a particular aversion to dried fruit, especially raisins, sultanas and currants. People seem to find it hard to comprehend that I really do not like Christmas cake, mince pies or Christmas Pudding. "Oh, you must like mince pies!" they insist, pressing the dread things upon me. When I was growing up, my mum used to make about a million mince pies for corporate events at my father's office: she did classic mince pies, iced mince pies, and, her piece de resistance, mince pies with a frangipane topping. She also made her own Christmas cakes and puddings (one year she forgot to add the flour to the pudding and it came to the groaning board like a dark, flaming cowpat), and something called Eyemouth Tart which hails from the Borders. I do admit to liking the icing and especially the marzipan from Christmas cake. When I got married, my mum made a special layer of my wedding cake - just for me - minus the mixed, dried fruit.

Stollen is a traditional German Christmas cake, and has a Dutch cousin in the Kerststol, and an Italian relation in Panettone (which I like, especially toasted when it is slightly stale) in that all are enriched yeast cakes. The mixture of fruit and spices gives Stollen a lovely festive scent and flavour - it fills the kitchen with the most comforting bready fug - and I love the thick, yellow slab of marzipan which runs through the centre of it (and turns delightfully crisp and caramelised at the edges if you toast a slice of Stollen). I make Stollen myself because I can then control what goes into it: Marks & Spencer's Stollen, and dainty 'Stollen Bites' are just about tolerable, but they do contain the dread dried fruit and raisins....

This recipe comes from baking supremo Dan Lepard, and the quantity given will yield two good-sized loaves. It freezes well (allow it to cool completely). I'd say it keeps well too, but it won't last long because it's so delicious.

The recipe begins with a "sponge", a method of getting the yeast going in a mixture of warm liquid, flour and sugar, before combining it with the main ingredients. It is quite a convoluted process, but well worth the effort.

For the sponge:
50g strong white bread flour
1 tsp caster sugar
2 level tsp easy-blend yeast or Dove's Farm Quick Yeast
100 ml warm milk

Mix all these ingredients together in a bowl and leave them to bubble for 30 mins.

For the dough:
450g strong white bread flour
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
finely grated zest of 1 lemon
3/4 tsp salt
50g icing sugar
150g unsalted butter, softened
1 egg
2 tbsp dark rum
175g warm milk
250g raisins
125g mixed peel
250g marzipan
melted butter and icing sugar to finish

If, like me, you do not like raisins, subsitute dried cranberries, or chopped apricots, or similar.

Place the flour for the dough in a big, wide mixing bowl, or the bowl of the food mixer, with the cinnamon, lemon zest, icing sugar and salt. Add the butter and rub it in with your fingers until all the lumps disappear. Beat the egg, rum and warm milk into the yeast sponge mixture and then pour this into the buttery flour. Add the dried fruit and stir everything together. Cover the bowl and leave for 10 mins, then lightly oil the work surface and your hands and gently knead the dough for 10 seconds. Return the dough to the bowl, cover and leave for another 10 mins. Repeat this light-kneading twice more at 10-min intervals. Leave the dough covered for a further 30 mins.

Divide the dough into two pieces and form each in to a ball. On a lightly dusted work surface, roll each ball of dough out into an oval, roughly 2 cm thick. Take the marzipan, divide it in half, and mould each piece into a sausage the same length as each oval of dough. Place the marzipan along the length of the dough, and then fold the dough in half so that the marzipan is covered. Press gently around the lump where the marzipan is with your fingertips to seal the marzipan in. Place each stollen on a baking sheet lined with baking parchment, leaving about 10 cms between each of them so they don't stick together as they rise. Put the try in a carrier bag to keep the dough moist and snug, and leave in a warm place for about an hour, or until the stollen have almost doubled in volume.

Heat the oven to 210C (190C for fan oven)/gas 6. Place the tray in the centre of the oven and bake for 20 mins, then reduce the heat (190C/170C/gas 5) and bake for a further 15 mins. Remove from oven and leave to cool on a wire rack. While still warm, brush each stollen with melted butter and dredge heavily with icing sugar, then wrap in waxed paper and store in a cool place.


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