Christmas time is a special time in Holland: for one, we don't just celebrate Christmas Day, on December 25, but repeat it the next day, on December 26th, a day aptly called 'Second Christmas Day'.  Two times the party, two times the food! On Christmas Eve, people may attend Christmas Mass at midnight and come home to have a midnight feast, also called koffietafel (literally means "coffee table"), with luxury rolls, cold cuts, cheeses, fruit preserves, hot chocolate, coffee or tea before going to bed. Traditionally, a luxury bread called kerststol is served and eaten at Christmas time: it is studded with candied fruit peel and raisins and sprinkled with powdered sugar. The bread is bought at neighborhood bakeries or, even better, baked at home.

If the bread contains a ribbon of creamy almond paste it is called a "stol". If it doesn't, it's "just" Christmas bread. During the December holidays, buttered slices of kerststol will be part of breakfast or brunch and may be offered to guests instead of a cookie with their cup of coffee or tea.

The stores and bakers will sell exactly the same bread at Easter, but then it's called paasstol.  

The commercially prepared stollen are heavy, chewy and rather rich. I prefer mine a little lighter so I use all purpose flour instead of bread flour.

1/2 cup golden raisins (75 grms)
1/2 cup mixed candied peel (orange, lemon, citron) (40 grms)
1/4 cup orange juice, warm (60 ml) - some prefer rum, or a flavored liqueur
2 1/2 cups all purpose flour (350 grms)
3/4 cup milk, warm (175 ml)
2 teaspoons active dry yeast (7 grms)
1/4 cup sugar (55 grms)
1/2 teaspoon salt (4 grms)
1 egg, beaten 
1/2 stick of butter, melted (50 grms)
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest

1 small can of almond paste* (or make your own by blending sliced almonds with the same weight amount of sugar, a small egg, lemon zest and a teaspoon of almond flavoring)

2 tablespoons butter, melted (25 grms)
2 tablespoons powdered sugar (15 grms)

Soak the raisins in the warm orange juice for a good fifteen minutes, then drain. Spread them out in a colander or baking sheet so that they can air-dry while you continue with the recipe. 

In a large bowl, place the flour. Make a well in the center and pour the warm milk in, and sprinkle the yeast on top. Let it sit for five minutes. Stir the flour and the milk until it barely comes together. Add the sugar and the salt, stir again, and slowly add the egg, then the melted butter and the lemon zest. Continue to knead for ten minutes on medium speed, until the dough comes together. If it's too dry add a tablespoon of milk at a time. 

Let the dough rest at room temperature, covered, for thirty minutes. Give those raisins a quick squeeze to drain some superfluous liquid. Fold them and the mixed peel into the dough: either by hand or in your bread mixer, but be careful that you don't tear through the gluten strands! You'll probably have more dried fruit than you think will ever fit, but keep kneading and pushing those raisins back in the dough (they tend to escape).  Knead the dough carefully until the raisins and candy peel are well distributed. Grease a bowl, place the dough inside, cover and rest for an hour at room temperature or until the dough has doubled in size. Don't skip this step as the stol will be very thick and heavy if you do. 

Gently deflate the dough and pat into an oval. Place the oval with the short end toward you and make an indentation along the length of the dough, in the middle. Now roll the almond paste on the counter until it forms a roll almost as long as the dough. Lay the almond roll in the indentation and lift the left side of the dough over the paste. Make sure that the dough does not meet the bottom half all the way: a significant shape of the stol is the bottom "pouting" lip of the bread. If you want a more pronounced pout, fold the right side of the dough one-third towards the almond paste ribbon, and fold the left side of the dough in half, placing it on top of the bottom half and covering the paste.

Rest the dough on a lightly greased baking sheet or silicone mat. Cover it and let it proof for about 30 minutes or until ready to bake: the dough should barely spring back if you poke it with your finger. In the meantime, preheat your oven to 350F. Bake the bread for 35 - 40 minutes on the middle rack, then reduce the heat down to 325F. Brush with melted butter and bake for another five minutes, then brush again and bake for another 5 minutes. If the bread is browning too fast, cover it with a piece of aluminum foil. Use a digital thermometer to determine if the bread is done: the temperature should be 190F and rising.

Cool the bread on a cooling rack. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and slice.

Tip: If you have any kerststol left over the next day, toast a slice until nice and golden. Whip the almond paste out with the tip of your knife and spread it on the warm slice of bread. Yummm!!!!!!!!!

*  Or make your own by blending 8 ounces of sliced almonds with the same amount of powdered sugar, an egg, a teaspoon of zest and a teaspoon of almond flavoring. If you have access to almond meal, substitute it for the sliced almonds.

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It's Time for Speculaas!

Cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and ginger are the main ingredients for a special Dutch treat called "speculaas", with a dash of white pepper thrown in for good measure. The word seemingly originated from the Latin word "speculum", mirror, in reference to the way the goods were prepared: the dough was pressed into a wooden decorated form, turned over and knocked out onto the baking sheet. The cookie now carried a "mirrored" image. In the old days by the end of November, bakers all over the country would initiate a subtle but effective sales strategy by throwing a handful of their speculaas spices in the bread oven's fire. The smoke would carry the wonderful smells into the streets, announcing the beginning of the speculaas baking season. Once you start baking this dough in your own kitchen, you'll know why: it makes the house smell wonderful!

Speculaas is no longer a unique December treat. An industrialized baking process has made speculaas an everyday kind of cookie in the Netherlands and it's available year-round for all to enjoy, even here in the US. As for me, I still wait until the beginning of December before I start baking speculaas, somehow the "once-a-year"-ity of it makes it into such a special occasion.

This year, I opted for two varieties: Gevulde Speculaas (filled with almond paste) and "brokken". Speculaas can be cut out in many shapes, but my favorites are "brokken", chunks. I bake a 1/2 inch high slab of speculaas in the oven until it's ready, and when it's cooled down on the counter, I break it into large chunks. Not pretty and fancy, but a lot easier and just as flavorful! 

Before I start, I make my own mixture of spices. Everybody has a preference for one or more spices in the mix, so feel free to adjust and experiment accordingly. As for me, I am not big on either nutmeg or cloves so barely put in the minimum.

Speculaas Brokken
2 cups (300 grams) self-rising flour*
2/3 cup (125 grams) dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons speculaas spices**
1 stick (125 grams) butter, cold 
5 tablespoons (75 ml) milk, cold
1 egg, beaten

Optional: sliced almonds

Mix the flour, sugar, and spices in a bowl until well integrated. Divide the butter into small pieces and rub into the dry mixture until crumbly, like wet sand. Moisten the mix with a tablespoon of milk at a time, and knead the dough until the butter and the spices are well blended. This will take a bit of kneading as the warmth of your hands will make the butter melt, and together with the milk, form a cohesive dough. Pat the dough into a flat oval, wrap securely in plastic wrap and refrigerate preferably overnight, but at least for four hours. This will allow the spices to thoroughly release all their goodness into the dough.

Preheat the oven to 350F/175C. Remove the dough from the refrigerator. If you are baking on a silicone mat or on parchment paper, place the dough on top, cover with the plastic wrap, and roll into an oval shape, about 1/2 inch high (or 3 mm if you are baking cookies). Pull back the plastic wrap, brush the dough with the beaten egg and sprinkle the almonds on top (optional) and softly roll the almonds onto the dough, just enough to where they're stuck.

Move your silicone mat or parchment paper onto the baking sheet, place it on the middle rack in the oven and bake for approximately 20-25 minutes. Check regularly as you want to avoid burning the bottom. Remove when the edges are crisping up (the rest of the speculaas will still be soft) and rest on a cooling rack until lukewarm. Break the oval into chunks and allow them to cool and harden, about another hour. Great with a steaming cup of coffee or a hot chocolate.

* If you don't have self-rising flour, measure out two cups of all-purpose flour and add two heaping teaspoons of baking powder and a large pinch of salt.

** For the spices: start with 1 heaping tablespoon of ground cinnamon. Mix in a 1/4 scant teaspoon nutmeg, 1/4 teaspoon scant ground cloves, 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger, 1/8 teaspoon cardamom, 1/8 teaspoon mace and 1/8 teaspoon white ground pepper and, if you have it, 1/8 teaspoon of dried orange peel. If you like the flavor of anise, add a 1/8th teaspoon of ground anise to give it a special twist. Smell and decide if you like it. Too much clove? Add in a bit more cinnamon. Prefer more ginger? Feel free to add some more. You are welcome to make it your very own, but make sure you write down the quantities and ingredients so you can replicate your personal recipe. Store in an airtight jar.

If you don't feel comfortable mixing the speculaasmix yourself, try finding them on one of the many online stores that sell Dutch foods.