As Christmas nears, last-minute shopping and preparations make this time of year especially busy. But in order to not get lost in the hustle and bustle, it’s important to take time to slow down and enjoy the traditions that prepare us for our Savior’s birth. This recipe for Vánočka Bread, along with one legendary mother’s reflection about making it for her family, perfectly captures the Christmas spirit.
Sweet Traditions of the Berger Family
The sweet bread that sounded most intriguing to me was a Bohemian loaf called vánočka (van-och-ka). Even the name piqued my interest. The dough was divided into nine parts and twisted and braided until a real swaddled baby seemed to lie high in the pan. When I first heard of the feat, I thought that it was too hard for me or any other busy American housewife. But the idea haunted me. I wanted to know if it would work, and if I could do it. Such giggles as went into that bread you never heard!
We rolled and pulled the nine pieces of dough until they were each a rope about three feet long. The kitchen looked like the snake house at the zoo. We had ropes of vánočka on the table and on the counter and even one coiled up on the chair. If only I could have had a flute to do a little snake charming, it would have been easy, but Christine wanted one snake and Kathy wanted another. Luckily, the older children were outdoors gathering evergreen. Four of the ropes were braided and placed in a large pan on greased paper. I found I didn’t know how to braid anything with four strands, but I learned on vánočka. There was just no turning back. On this wide braid, I centered a regular three-rope braid. That was a good trick in itself. Finally, a simple twist of two ropes rested on top of the other braids and crowned the loaf.
Such a bread you never saw. It was beautiful, dough until they were long strands, each about three feet long. I found I didn’t know how to braid anything, if I do say so myself. There was the Christ child, with the swaddling clothes as neat as though they were just wrapped. The children loved it as much as I did. If I can do it, you can. So come on, roll up your sleeves and overwhelm your families. They will never guess how you put a vánočka together.
Serves 6 to 8
2 cakes yeast or 2 packages dry yeast
8 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
6 tbsp lukewarm milk
1 cup unsalted butter
1 tsp salt
2 tsp grated lemon peel
4 egg yolks
2 cups whole milk
2/3 cup raisins
4 cups diced candied citron
2 egg whites, lightly beaten
½ cup chopped blanched almonds
Combine the yeast, ¼ cup flour and 2 tablespoons sugar in 6 tablespoons lukewarm milk; set aside.
Put the remaining 8 cups flour into a large mixing bowl, and using two knives or a pastry cutter, cut the butter into the flour until the butter-flour mixture resembles small peas. Add remaining 1 cup sugar, the salt and lemon peel.
When yeast mixture becomes foamy, add it to the flour mixture. Beat in the egg yolks and 2 cups milk. Knead until smooth; knead the fruit in. Lightly butter a large bowl, add the dough, making sure that all surfaces are buttered. Cover and let rise for 2 hours.
To braid the dough, punch it down, then separate it into 9 equal-sized strands on a lightly floured surface. To make the 4-piece braid, pinch one end of each of the strands. Cross strand one over strand three; cross strand two over strand three. Cross strand four over strand two. Repeat until all strands form a long braid. Place this braid onto an 11- by 18-inch pan. To make the 3-strand braid, form it in the traditional manner, and place it on top of the 4-strand braid. For the 2-strand braid, simply crisscross the dough strands, and place this on top of the 3-strand braid. Be sure to pinch closed all ends of the braids. Brush the surface of all braids with the beaten egg whites. Let the dough rise again for about 1 ½ hours.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Brush the braids again with more egg white and sprinkle with the chopped almonds. Bake for about 1 ¼ hours or until well risen and brown. Cool completely before slicing.
For more great recipes, stories, reflections and Church traditions, order the new edition of the CRL Cookbook, Cooking for Christ, by Florence Berger. Click here to order the cookbook today.