Friday, December 12, 2014

Czech Christmas Bread - Vanocka

From the kitchen of One Perfect Bite...I have another old-world holiday bread to share with you tonight. Vanocka is a Czech Christmas bread that has remained popular despite a history that dates back to the 16th century. At one time, this bread could only be made by bakers who were guild craftsmen and it wasn't until the 18th century that the loaves could be baked in home kitchens. In order to assure the abundance of the coming grain harvest, superstition demanded that the master of the house be given the first portions of the bread. A large Vanocka was sliced at the end of the meal on Christmas Eve, and after the master had his portion it was shared with others at the table. In some homes, superstition was so keen that a slice would also be given to livestock to keep them healthy and safe from evil spirits. This is not a simple bread to make and over time a variety of rules were developed to ensure the baker would meet with success. The woman who made the bread had to wear a white apron and kerchief, and while she couldn't talk, she was expected to jump up and down while the bread was rising. Go figure! In some households, a single coin was baked in the bread and the one who found it was assured of health and wealth in the coming year. They were almost as fortunate as the livestock who received the same protection by virtue of eating a slice of the bread. I really shouldn't jest. For years it was believed that a burnt loaf, or one that was torn rather than sliced, was an omen that would auger ill for the next years harvest. Today, the bread has only symbolic importance, but it has become an integral part of holiday celebrations in the Czech Republic, and its intricate braiding sets it apart from similar holiday breads in other countries. There are techniques for braiding the loaves that exceed my dexterity, but it is interesting to see how the myriad strands can be brought together to form this imposing loaf. A proper Vanocka should have at least six plaits. By stretching a few rules, my loaf actually had seven because I stacked them one atop the other following the directions given in the recipe below.. It's a bit like building the pyramids, though it would help to have a degree in architecture when assembling the loaf. Lacking that, but realizing that at some point the three tiers of my loaf would start to slip, I skewered them in the middle and at both ends to keep the bread intact. It worked, kinda', though I must admit that only the best side of my bread has been captured by the camera. If you share my culinary curiosity, you might want to give this recipe a try. Its towering braids, like mountain peaks, beckon and challenge the adventurous because they are there and we are not. I can now cross this one off my bucket list. It actually is a lovely loaf and I do hope some of you will give the bread a try. Here is how Vanocka is made.

Czech Christmas Bread - Vanocka...from the kitchen of One Perfect Bite courtesy of Barbara Rolek, Eastern European Food Expert at

1 cup scalded milk
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 packages (4-1/2 teaspoons) active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water
2 large room-temperature eggs, beaten
5 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup golden or dark raisins
1/2 cup blanched sliced almonds
1/3 cup chopped citron
1 large room-temperature egg, beaten
2 tablespoons blanched sliced almonds
Confectioners' sugar (optional)

1) Add butter, sugar and salt to scalded milk. Stir to combine and let cool to lukewarm.
2) Place yeast and warm water in bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Stir until dissolved. Add lukewarm milk mixture and 2 eggs and combine.
3) Add 3 cups flour and beat until smooth. Add raisins, almonds, citron, and remaining flour and mix, 3 to 5 minutes until smooth. Dough will be sticky.
4) Place dough in greased bowl. Turn over and cover with plastic wrap and let rise until double, about 1 hour.
5) Punch down dough and turn out onto lightly floured board. Divide dough into 3 large pieces and 5 smaller ones. Roll each piece into a rope, about 14 inches long. On a parchment-lined baking sheet, braid the 3 larger pieces loosely and pinch ends together. Braid 3 of the smaller rolls, pinch ends together, and place on top of large braid. Twist the last 2 rolls together and place on top of second braid, tucking ends under large braid. Cover with a cloth or greased plastic wrap and let rise 1 to 1 1/2 hours in a warm place.
6) Heat oven to 400 degrees. Brush vanocka with 1 beaten egg and sprinkle with 2 tablespoons almonds. Bake 15 minutes, reduce heat to 375 degrees and bake 30-45 minutes longer or until instant-read temperature registers 190 degrees. If top of bread is getting too dark, cover it with foil. Let cool completely before slicing. Dust with confectioners' sugar before cutting, if desired. Yield: 1 very large loaf.

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Angie Schneider said...

This is so beautiful and festive, Mary.
Have a wonderful baking season!

Food, Fun and Life in the Charente said...

I like the sound of this bread. Hope that you have a blessed Christmas and New Year. We will be away until January so see you back in 2015. Diane

Melinda said...

Sounds very interesting.

M : )

Catherine said...

Such a beautiful and delicious bread.
I hope all is well and you have a very happy holiday. xo Catherine

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