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Sunday, December 15, 2013

Dresdner Christstollen—A Holiday Gift from Far Away

Please welcome my guest, Heidi Noroozy, with a special German treat from her childhood.
When I was a child growing up in a German-Swiss family, Christmas at our house had a different feel than in the other homes in our small Vermont town. Less boldly cheery and more sedate, but every bit as fun. For one thing, we opened our presents on Christmas Eve and saved only the nut- and candy-filled stockings for Christmas Day. For another, our tree was light on tinsel and heavy on hand-painted wooden and glass ornaments sent by relatives in Germany.

As a child with a major sweet tooth, the arrival of a special package from East Germany (GDR) was always cause for great anticipation. I’d check the mailbox daily for weeks in advance. My mother’s family lived in the GDR, and between our infrequent visits, we had little contact with them. Except at Christmas, when Tante Grete mailed us a Christmas stollen (Christstollen)—a yeast cake filled with raisins, nuts, and candied fruit and covered with a lovely crust of vanilla-scented sugar. The most authentic ones are said to be made in the city of Dresden, which is where she lived.

The pastry came packaged in an oblong metal tin with a pretty winter scene painted on the side. The tin was sealed so tight, opening it required a bit of ingenuity—and my father’s toolbox. Because of the odd shape, a can opener didn’t work. So my mother would set the tin down on one end and pry the lid off with a hammer and chisel. The oval cake—a sweetbread, really—would slide out onto a cutting board, dribbling a trail of powdered sugar like a light dusting of snow.

Years later, when I moved to East Germany to study at Leipzig University (or Karl-Marz-Universität, as it was called at the time), I would scour the shops in mid-December in search of a real Dresdner Christstollen. I found many lesser cakes during the Christmas holidays but none in the familiar tin box with the winter scene painted on the side. The explanations varied.

Mangelware,” one friend said, claiming that the ingredients were in short supply, due to the GDR’s perennial deficit of hard currency for imports. I had no trouble believing this explanation, having witnessed butter rationing and empty store shelves with my own eyes.

Another acquaintance told me that specialty products such as authentic Dresdner Stollen went straight to the export market, bypassing East German shops altogether. This, too, I knew was common practice.

Recently, I published a short story inspired by my years in the GDR. “Trading Places” features a disillusioned East German policeman on the trail of a graffiti artist whose cryptic political messages threaten to spark public unrest. Lieutenant Maibeck is an outsider in his world, a former aristocrat who’s tried hard to overcome the liability of his noble birth to fit into East Germany’s Communist society. In his single-minded pursuit of this goal, he’s alienated most of the people he loves. Christmas will be a lonely affair for poor Maibeck, but I like to think that he’ll slice up a sugar-crusted Christstollen to go with his morning coffee on Christmas Day.

You can read the story online in the October 2013 issue of Nautilus Magazine.

And here is a recipe I found in an old family cookbook. I can’t say whether it comes from the German or Swiss side, but it hardly matters. The Germans, Austrians and Swiss enjoy this festive cake in equal measure.

German Christstollen


3 cups all-purpose flour

1 package dry yeast

¾ cup milk

1/3 cup sugar

Grated zest of ½ lemon

1 ½ sticks butter, softened (3/4 cup)

¼ teaspoon ground saffron (optional)

½ cup black raisins

½ cup golden raisins

½ cup chopped almonds

½ cup chopped hazelnuts

For the topping:

1–2 tablespoons melted butter

1 cup powdered sugar*

Heat the milk then cool it to lukewarm. Add the dry yeast, lemon zest, saffron and sugar, and stir to dissolve. Add 1 cup of the flour and mix to form a sponge. Cover with a towel and let rise for ½ hour.

Mix the rest of the flour with raisins and nuts. Add to the wet ingredients along with the softened butter, and work into a dough, kneading until it's smooth. This can also be done in a mixer or food processor with a dough blade. Form the dough into a ball, and let rise until doubled, about 1 to 1 ½ hours.

Punch down the dough, and roll out into an oval. Fold one side of the dough over the other, leaving about 1/2 inch of the long edge of the bottom layer extending beyond the top fold. (This gives the stollen its distinctive, lopsided shape). Tuck the short ends underneath the loaf. Cover and let rise for another 45 minutes.

Place the loaf on a cookie sheet and bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for about an hour.

While the stollen is still warm, brush the top with melted butter and sprinkle with powdered sugar. Dribble a bit more melted butter on top of the sugar, and then sprinkle on another layer of sugar.

* This topping is especially tasty with vanilla-scented sugar. You can make your own by sticking a whole vanilla bean into a jar of powdered sugar and letting it stand for about a week. Or mix a packet of vanilla sugar in with the powdered sugar before topping the stollen.


 Heidi Noroozy is a translator, blogger, and writer of multicultural fiction. Her short stories appeared in German crime anthologies and have been translated into five languages. Her most recent story, “Trading Places,” was published in the “Secret Codes” issue of Nautilus Magazine in October 2013. She lived in the GDR in the 1980s and holds a degree in German language and literature from Leipzig University. Heidi lives in Northern California with her Iranian-born husband and is currently writing a novel set in present-day Iran.



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