The Better Fruitcake: Baking Stollen at NYC's Bien Cuit Bakery

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

"Are you politely trying to say you don't like stollen?"

"No," Zachary Golper says. "I'm politely trying to say that I'm a bad Jew."

I'm in Golper's kitchen at Bien Cuit in Brooklyn, one of New York's finest bakeries for bread and French pastry, and we're talking Christmastime. While his impeccable tarts and croissants are plenty popular during the holiday season, December demands a bread of its own. For better or worse, December demands fruitcake.

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Golper doesn't care for candied doorstops, so he bakes the German alternative: stollen. "It's like a yeasted fruitcake with all of the good stuff and none of the bad." And his stollen stands proud, even among the city's many holiday bread offerings, as one of the best things you can eat this time of year.

It's a dense, buttery loaf perfumed with citrus zest, orange blossom, and rum. The crumb is stuffed with a delicate almond cream, and the whole thing is "baptized" after baking in a bath of clarified butter, then finished with powdered sugar as fluffy as the season's first snowfall.

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Stollen is larded with history, dating back centuries to a time when a pope nicknamed the "butter-letter" regulated Christmas dairy usage in the Holy Roman Empire's bakeries. But Golper's version is hardly old fashioned. He skips the traditional and hyper-sweet marzipan filling for a custard made of almond flour, egg yolks, butter, and cream. And he bypasses fat chunks of candied fruit for more delicate citrus zest—tangerine plus grapefruit plus Meyer lemon plus kumquat—along with delicate rum-soaked currants.

But most importantly, he starts with a dough that pays his usual customary respect to the alchemical powers of yeast. Here's how it's done.

The Pre-Ferment

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All the butter, nuts, fruit, and booze that go in stollen run the risk of preventing the dough from ever rising, so Golper begins his bread with a small biga pre-ferment dough. At 68% hydration, it's a relatively dry dough for Bien Cuit's offerings; most of their doughs are wetter, which leads to a different kind of flavor development. But the biga's aroma is unmistakably like a sweet wheat beer—just what you want for this Christmas bread.

The biga is made with King Arthur's Sir Galahad, a "commercial flour" as Golper describes it. "I'm a little ashamed to say that," he says, as Bien Cuit's breads are typically made with small-batch flours with superior flavor, but "for stollen you want the kind of consistency you get with commercial flour." Milk brings lactose to the dough, which, during fermentation, adds a rounded lactic sweet-tart creaminess to the final product. A touch of sugar kickstarts the fermentation.

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The pre-ferment rises for about 16 hours. In the photo above, the ball in the foreground is freshly mixed. The one in the back has rested until it has a stiff, silky texture and a more tan hue, evidence of enzymatic action adding more complex flavors to the dough.

The Dough

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Once the biga's ready, Golper tears it up into small chunks and returns it to the mixer along with more yeast, milk, and some sugar, salt, orange blossom water, and vanilla extract. That's all mixed until it forms a moist, chunky paste, then in goes more flour to form the actual dough.

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That dough looks dry for the moment, but that changes fast once a fat helping of Cabot butter goes in. In the past, Golper's used egg in his dough as well, but decided this year to stick with butter for a slightly less cakey bread. The dough spins around the dough hook until it can be stretched thin enough for light to pass through without the dough tearing.

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Now's time for all the good stuff. Bien Cuit peels and candies kumquat, grapefruit, Meyer lemon, and tangerine peels for a balance of sour, bitter, herbal, and sweet flavors, a process that takes six days from start to finish as the peels are cooked in ever more concentrated sugar syrups. They bring an incredible perfume to the dough without overpowering the butter or natural yeasty flavors.

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Currants soaked in rum syrup and toasted slivered almonds add more texture and flavor, forming the bulk of the good-stuff payload. You'll notice a distinct absence of fat chunks of sugary candied fruit from this dough. That restraint is one of the things that sets this stollen apart.

Once all the chunkies are incorporated, the dough is ready to rest another seven to eight hours. If you're keeping count at home, "that's about 36 hours for this bread from start to finish," Golper says.

Shaping and Baking

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Stollen is traditionally filled with a log of marzipan in the center. Golper will have none of this.

"Why would you take something so lovely as an almond and make marzipan that tears at your teeth and is sickeningly sweet?" Instead, he takes almond flour and mixes it with cream, butter, sugar, egg, and more of the candied citrus peels. The cream is then piped, frozen, and weighed out, then folded into the dough before the second rise.

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The dough is simply folded over the cream logs, encasing them like a giant empanada. After seven to eight hours, it's ready for baking in Bien Cuit's massive floor to ceiling Revent oven.

Baptism By Butter

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You can tell a Bien Cuit bread by sight alone. All of Golper's loaves and viennoisserie feature burnished, bronzed crusts, and his stollen is no exception. That is, at least when it's fresh from the oven before it gets a thick coat of powdered sugar.

But first it's time for what Golper calls the bread's "baptism," in which the still-hot loaves are dipped in a bath of 16 pounds of clarified butter, which makes their crusts glisten and, more importantly, introduces more fat, moisture, and flavor into the dough. Since Bien Cuit wasn't in full stollen-making mode during this shoot Golper's brushed the butter on instead, but the principle is the same.

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Once the breads have cooled, on goes the sugar, enough to turn the bread a snowy white. The sugar doesn't turn greasy as it sits; it just adds another hint of richness to that first bite.

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Yet this isn't a heavy loaf weighed down with butter, sugar, and fruit. It's bread more than cake, with a complex yeasted flavor at its core. Not that we're complaining about the butter or citrus or nuts or almond cream. Or how this stollen is so good you won't need to add any butter or jam to enjoy it.

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Bien Cuit's stollen will be available December 15th through January 2nd at $18 per loaf. The bread will last about three days at top condition.