Special Vanocka: Czech Christmas bread done right

25-12-2004 | Eric P. Martin

For centuries, Czechs have enjoyed the Christmas treat vanocka, which means bakers have labored to make the sweet, fruity bread for just as many centuries. Radio Prague's Eric Martin found out just how difficult the bread is to make. The product of his hours-long solo attempt was practically inedible, so we sent him to get his act together at a well-known Prague bakery as it prepared for the Christmas season's first batch of vanocka.

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I came to the Bakeshop Praha bakery in the heart of Prague for help. I had tried to make the Czech Christmas bread vanocka on my own, only to fail miserably. Rather than golden brown braids of bread, my vanocka was nothing but lumpy, blackened clumps.

"I think it is something that means Christmas, like pumpkin pie means Thanksgiving for me."

The offer of help came from Bakeshop Praha owner Anne Feeley, an American baker who has planted roots in Prague.

"We never made vanocka before. This is our first year making it. But what I've seen in so many places is that it's all mass produced now. I don't know any place you can get it where it's made the way your grandmother made it, at all. ... So that's when I decided I'm going to make it."

Ms. Feeley walked me through the process.

"The thing that's time consuming is preparing the raisins and apricots, and soaking them in the hot brandy. And you do that the day before. I mean, it's time consuming in terms of the length of time (that it adds to the process). It doesn't take long to do. But it's best if you let the first mixture sit over night so they absorb all the alcohol. It's delicious."

She began putting ingredients in a giant mixer.

"We're mixing the flower, the yeast, the sugar, the anise, and the peels - the lemon and orange peels. And we mix that just dry for a second to get a good mix. And then we add the milk."

The mixer whirred as Ms. Feeley poured the milk into the machine's basin.

"I like the tools of the trade. Probably in your job you like microphones and all that kind of stuff. For me I love mixers and beaters."

"Most home mixers for making cakes come with a bread hook, which is what I'm using. And really that's all you need to have."

She beats eggs and egg yolks together and adds them into the mix.

"Now I'm going to add in the butter. ... Now we're going to mix until the butter is incorporated. Pretty much at each stage that's what you're doing. You're putting in the milk until it's incorporated, the eggs until their incorporated and now the butter until it's incorporated. As soon as we don't see big clumps of butter, we will add everything else."

Ms. Feeley stops the mixer and tosses in more flour.

"When you're putting in a big batch of flour like that, just start your mixer on low, otherwise the flower will be all over the kitchen."

"And now you mix it for five minutes. I mix it until it forms a good ball on the hook. When it forms a ball, then I know it's ready."

When the mixing was done, Ms. Feeley prepared a counter to knead the dough.

"Can you smell it? I love the way the orange, the lemon and the rum come together."

"At Easter, the special Easter bread is the same dough, just cooked into a different shape. So if you get this recipe down, you're ready for Easter as well."

-What shape is the Easter bread?

"It has a cross on the top, sort of like a big hot-crossed bun."

"So we just put some flower along the bottom. I think it would be pretty hard to give a kneading lesson over the radio, but you should just keep on going in the same direction. You don't change directions. And you do that for the gluten and the flour to develop nice long strands. You don't want to break it down."

-There does seems to be a system to it, though. You're twisting it, and then pulling back and pushing.

"Yes, in the same direction every time. And then the heal of my palm pushes it out."

-What's our goal while we're kneading it?

"Actually, at this point in my life now, I can just tell from the way if feels that it's ready. And it's hard to describe it, but it comes together nice and cleanly, and has a beautiful, satiny feel."

The kneading done, Ms. Feeley put the dough in a plastic bowl.

"So I put the dough in, and I flipped it over. I buttered the bowl. So now there's butter on the top."

"And then you let it sit with a little bit of butter in a covered bowl for one hour. Then you braid it."

Ms. Feeley introduced me to pastry bakers Marketa and Eva, who started to braid the bread.

"They've cut it into the sizes that it's going to be. It's going to be five, the recipe we're doing. They do a nine-braid system. The kind that we had today was a six braid system. So I'm very curious to see what their going to do."

"Then she's dividing it into nine pieces."

-And they're connecting the strands at the top.

"That will be one end of the bread."

"She weaves one through up and down throughout, and then she brings the next one. Then she presses down the center spot for the next one. This is the three braid, and it's very clear how to do that."

-It's just like braiding hair. She's taking whichever strand is on the outside to the inside.

"The two is just twirled around. They sit on top of each other. So the bottom layer has four. Then she pounds a little well in the center and puts in the next braid. That has three, and then the top braid has two."

-What's our next step?

"Waiting for this to rise, which we'll do when this is done. We'll just put them aside."

-How long do we wait?

"At home, probably 45 minutes ... to an hour."

"They've just gotten a bit fluffier. Can you see the difference?"

-They've risen nicely. Now that they've risen, what do we do next?

"We're going to paint them with the egg that we beat up before. And I'm just going to nicely coat them. That'll make them have a nice shiny coat, and it will also help the almonds to stick that we're going to sprinkle on top. You can be sloppy."

"It looks good and slimy, so now we just sprinkle the nuts."

-How much would you put on there?

"A good handful. It really depends what you like. You don't even need to do it. I just think it looks prettier."

"So here we go. We're going to put them in the oven."

"So now it's time to relax."

-How long do they take?

"I'll check them in 30 minutes, and then we'll make judgment from there. Every oven has a certain amount of variation in temperature, and so sometimes it will take 40 minutes, sometimes 45. We just keep a watch. I have it set at 200 (Celsius), and we'll see."

A car passed as I took a breather outside of Bakeshop Praha. Making vanocka has a lot of downtime.

"It's been 20 minutes."

-What do we have to do now?

"Now we're just going to turn them, so that they brown evenly and cook evenly because most ovens don't have even heat."

"The ones in the back are a bit darker. See? They look great. I think this is our best batch yet."

"So we're going to wait 15 minutes now and then check them. That'll be 35 minutes of cooking, and from there it'll just be fine tuning."

After a few minutes, we looked in the oven again.

-So is this the last step?

"This should be it. And we have vanocka."

-What's the color we're going for?

"A golden brown. And I think we've done it. We've had a little bit of a collapse here, but I think we can fix that next time."

-We're looking at the finished product here. What's it supposed to look like when it's done?

"Full of fruit. For me, I love the different colors. It's sweet, but it's naturally sweet. There's very little sugar in it. It's just the fruit and the alcohol sweetening it. So the flavor's great. I like the little striations from the braiding. To me that looks like good vanocka."

Back at the Radio Prague studios, the vanocka proved to be a success. Before, when I brought in the vanocka I made at home, my colleagues looked at it with raised eyebrows and refused my offers to sample a piece. But when I brought in Anne Feeley's vanocka, at least one Radio Prague reporter came back for seconds, and thirds, and fourths.

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