Vánočka is a braided Christmas bread, studded with raisins and other goodies, and part of the Czech holiday tradition. My grandmother had taught me the general recipe, and I taught my brother. Of course, when my brother had shown a photo of is perfect vánočka to our grandmother, she had accused him of cheating and using mine, because no man could possibly do women’s work of such quality. We loved her, but she sure was a women set in her ways.
I have a long-standing relationship with raisins, a critical ingredient. Greed, molestation of pastry, and general embarrassment is involved, but they are all quite PG. I hope it puts a smile on your face. If you’d like a free copy, claim it here.
Along with the best New Year’s wishes, I’m sending you the recipe. I wrote it down the way I actually baked it. Obviously, you don’t have to walk the dog or write half a chapter during the baking process.
I wish you health, love, and happiness in the upcoming year!
Vánočka is supposed to be light, fragrant with spices and citrus, but not too sweet. The sweetness comes from the raisins and bits of optional candied orange peel.
The water-flour ratio will vary according to the amount of moisture in the flour. In the winter, when the air is dry, expect to have to add a little bit of flour to keep the dough from being sticky. Make sure to use general purpose or bread flour. Avoid “southern” low-gluten flour, it won’t hold its shape as well. If you have only low-gluten flour, add a teaspoon of bakery gluten per 2 cups of flour.
2 loaves – the maximum amount of dough our KitchenAid will reliably knead.
2 cups of tepid water (not hot, lest you kill the live yeast!)
1 tbsp dry yeast
2 tbsp sugar (white is traditional, brown would be fun)
Let yeast activate while you assemble other ingredients:
- 5 to 6 cups of flour
- 2 tsp fine salt
- 4 egg yolks
- 4 tbsp melted butter or oil (try a nut oil or plain canola oil if going dairy-free)
- grind few cardamom seeds, zest from ½ of a lemon, and few gratings of nutmeg. Add into the wet components
- set aside a solid handful of dark raisins, half that amount of minced candied orange peel, and a 2/3 handful of slivered almonds. Drizzle with a bit of rum if you’re feeling adventurous.
Now that your yeast is looking nice and cloudy, add egg yolks, butter and/or oil, and mix in.
Remove the bowl from the Kitchen Aid and mix in 4 cups of flour using a wooden spoon. By hand. Because you’re THAT hard-core. (And because clouds of flour in the kitchen an under-rated slipping hazard.)
Scrape the goop off the wooden spoon so’s not to waste any, and set it to knead on low using a kneading attachment. (Let it knead while you empty the dishwasher, mince the orange peel, and clean up after yourself.)
Check the dough. It will probably be a bit wet. Add salt, sprinkling it all over, then a bit more flour, and knead again. Continue adding flour judiciously and kneading until you get a nice, homogenous mass that’s not wet to touch. Knead for about 2 more minutes. Remove the bowl from the machine, remove the dough hook, scrape the dough off the side and make a tidy ball. Cover with a wet, warm kitchen towel or cling film, and go take your shower.
Once you are showered, dressed, and your hair is properly styled, descend downstairs once again. Put up your well-deserved coffee. While the water is heating, check the dough. It should’ve at least doubled.
Taste the dough. This is your last chance to correct the spices and the salt. If you need to do so, grind salt (and spices) into a fine powder in a pestle, and sprinkle over the dough evenly.
Turn out onto a floured pastry board. Knead six times clock-wise, flip over, knead six times more. Stretch the dough out into a flat sheet and spread raisins, ¾ of the slivered almonds, and the minced candied orange peel (which, if home-made, may benefit from a brief soak in warm water – just strain it in a sieve before incorporating.)
Roll up the dough. Squish it and twist it upon itself so as to distribute the goodies evenly. Don’t be delicate about it – your coffee is getting cold. It’s fine to break the dough structure, just squish it together again. Twist and break and squish maybe four to six times.
Pat the dough into a tidy ball. Scrape remains with a bench scraper and reunite them with the ball. Cover with a cling film (or a wet, warm kitchen towel), wash your hands, and go write half a chapter.
Once you have produced 750 words (close to an hour), take a stretch break. Go pee, wash up, refill your coffee, and go poke the dough. It should still spring a little, but that little divot will stay for a while. It means it can be shaped.
Wielding your bench scraper, cut the dough in half. Set one half aside for now, and focus on the lump that’s before you. Imagine the volume divided into 7 equal parts, and cut it accordingly. You want to end up with 7 snakes, which you will roll between your hands like you used to do in kindergarten. They should all be of an equal thickness and length. Feel free to pinch off some material off the long ones, and help out the short ones.
Take 4 snakes, and braid them into a 4-braid pattern. This is easier to do than to explain, and I’ll show you how in a video at a later date. For now, line them up side by side. Working from the left, weave one into the others so that it goes over and under and over. Straighten the first snake so it hangs parallel. Then take what used to be the second one (but is now the first one), and do the same thing, making sure you go opposite of the previous snake. Keep doing that. When you get to the end, pinch the ends together and tuck under.
Turn the pastry board around, and weave the other end. The bread will look like woven fabric.
If you screw up, do your best and just line them up on a baking sheet on a parchment, and pinch the edges together lengthwise. Then tuck them under. (Nobody really sees the middle of this layer anyway, and you’ll get it next time.)
The base layer having been completed, take the remaining 3 snakes and make a simple 3-strand braid. Place it on top, stretch the ends, and tuck them under the ends of the base layer. Balance the sucker. If you want to make sure the layers stay in place, use 2 toothpicks to pierce the layers together.
Repeat with the second half of the dough.
Align the two loaves on the same baking sheet. They should fit if you slant them on a diagonal.
Brush them with egg wash (for that nice, glossy color) and sprinkle with the remaining slivered almonds. Stick the almonds on by hand if they fall off. They are your bitches and it’s their job to stay.
Set your oven to 200 degrees Fahrenheit, cover your loaves with either cling film or foil (but not the heavy, wet wash cloth, eew!), and refresh your coffee. Set the sheet on top of the stove, so it gets just enough heat, and go finish writing that chapter.
An hour later, check your loaves and touch up the egg wash if necessary (watercolor brushes work well.) Crank up the heat to 400F. When oven reaches desired temperature, slide the loaves in at medium height. Lower the heat to 350F, set your timer for 30 minutes, and go wake up the rest of the family.
The loaves should be tan in color. When you tap on them, the sound should be vaguely hollow. If you don’t trust the sound part, either stick a skewer in (they are done if the skewer comes out dry), or when an instant-read thermometer reads 200F or higher.
Pull out your delectably fragrant vánočka bread and let it cool. Turn the oven off. Take the dog for a walk. When you come back, chase your hungry family away from the fresh, warm bread. Sprinkle it with powdered sugar (through a sieve), slice on a board, and serve on a pretty platter.
If you won’t be eating the second loaf the same day, make sure to wrap it in cling film. If it dries out on you, just use it for French toast.