This post is in honour of my Czech heritage, generations past, and my cousin Mary who has kept this bread-making tradition going over the years. She bakes several loaves of this bread and delivers one to my father, who looks forward to her visit and the enjoyment of this celebratory loaf, just before Christmas.
According to Wikipedia, vánočka “has a reputation for being difficult to prepare, so in many households, superstitions and special customs are attached to the baking process. When making vánočka, it is said that one must think of everyone dear to you. Another custom is to avoid touching silver or metal to the vánočka. Finally, the person who is making the vánočka should jump up and down while the dough rises.” If you are used to making bread, this recipe is not particularly difficult, but it takes time, as bread does…and you can think about all those people you love while jumping up and down!
Traditionally, this bread is eaten with butter and marmalade or apricot jam. But it also tastes great toasted, and it is good with cheese, for turkey sandwiches and French toast too.
2 c. milk
1/2 c. butter
1/2 c. granulated sugar
1 t. salt
1 t. sugar
1/2 c. lukewarm water
l package active dry yeast or 1 T. quick-rise instant yeast (If you use instant yeast, the rising time will be much shorter)
2 egg yolks
1 T. lemon rind
1 t. toasted and crushed anise seed
8 c. (approx.) all-purpose flour
1/2 c. golden raisins (I used chopped dried apricots)
3/4 c. slivered almonds, (1/2 c. toasted, 1/4 c. not toasted, for topping)
2 T. milk
1 egg yolk
Scald 2 cups milk and pour into large bowl. Add butter, 1/2 cup sugar and salt. Stir to melt butter and dissolve sugar.
Meanwhile, in small container, dissolve 1 t. sugar in lukewarm water. Sprinkle yeast over and set aside for 10 minutes until mixture bubbles and doubles in volume. Stir briskly with fork and add to milk mixture. Lightly beat together eggs and 2 egg yolks; add to mixture with lemon rind and anise seed.
Add 4 cups flour and beat well. Mixture will look like this:
Gradually add just enough of remaining flour to make a soft, slightly sticky dough that leaves sides of bowl. Turn out onto floured surface and knead for 8 to 10 minutes or until dough is smooth and elastic, incorporating only as much flour as needed to keep dough from sticking. Depending on the flour used, this amount may be considerably less. I used Roger’s unbleached flour and only needed 7 cups total. As dough starts to become smooth, knead in raisins or apricots and 1/2 cup toasted almonds.
Grease a large bowl. Shape dough into ball and place in bowl, rolling ball to grease all over. Cover with greased waxed paper and a clean tea towel and let rise in warm place for about 1 1/2 hours or until doubled.
Punch down dough and turn out onto lightly floured surface. Knead a few times and divide into 10 equal portions. Cover with towel and let rest for 10 minutes.
Roll each piece into a 14 inch rope with tapered ends. Arrange 3 ropes on greased baking sheet and braid together, pinch ends together and turn under. (Do not braid too tightly or leave large spaces between loops.) Brush top with some of the milk.
Twist 2 of the remaining ropes together. Place on top of the braid; twist ends together and tuck under braid.
Repeat process with 5 remaining ropes to make a second loaf on another baking sheet, or put both loaves on one large baking sheet. Cover with a dry towel and let rise in warm place until almost doubled in size, about 45 minutes.
Bake loaves in 350ºF oven for 20 minutes. Meanwhile stir together remaining milk and egg yolk. Brush gently on partially baked loaves. Sprinkle with remaining almonds. Continue baking for about 15 minutes more, or until bread is golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped on bottom. If loaves start to brown too quickly, cover with foil, shiny side up.
Remove loaves from oven, and after 5 minutes, transfer loaves to racks to cool completely.
Wrap well and store at room temperature for up to 2 days, or freeze for up to 2 months. Makes 2 loaves.