Saturday, November 20, 2010

Adventures in Baking 101: Stollen, Coconut-Cream Cheese Brownies

Baking class, week thirteen. Stollen (pronounced “shtollen”) is a traditional German bread, usually served during the Christmas season. Our instructor, Chef Dennis, was raised in Germany and used to eat stollen as a child, so perhaps he has a fondness for it. After trying it, I know I do.

The final stollen, dusted with powdered sugar.

Stollen is sometimes described as a cake but it strikes me as more of a bread, as it’s made with yeast and has a bread-like crumb. It’s not very sweet, except for all the additions studding the loaf, which in our case included dried cherries, raisins, candied orange peel, and toasted almonds. The recipe calls for the raisins to be soaked in rum, and I’m sure that would have been terrific, but no alcohol is allowed on school grounds so I’ll have to save that for when I make stollen at home (which I will).

Stollen cut open to show the raisins, dried cherries, and almonds inside.
The large chunk in the lower right corner is marzipan.

Stollen’s real kicker is a log of marzipan, or sweetened almond paste, that runs through the center of the loaf. After mixing and rising, the stollen dough is rolled into an oval about 3/4” thick. A chunk of marzipan is shaped into a log about an inch thick, then placed on top of the dough. The dough is folded over—completely encasing the marzipan—brushed with egg wash, then baked.

Europeans have a fondness for marzipan, which they consume in various forms throughout the year, especially during the Christmas holidays. On the other hand many Americans, including some of the students in the baking class, seem to be wary of marzipan, like they consider it a bit weird. I assume Chef Dennis is intentionally exposing us to foods outside our comfort zones.

After the stollen was baked, we cut open a loaf and had a taste test. Fresh from the oven, it was so delicious I could have eaten half a loaf myself (especially since it was 8:30 p.m. and I hadn’t eaten for seven hours). However I sensed a lack of enthusiasm among some of the students, and a few didn’t even try it. One or two who did try it commented that the orange peel was too strong and overshadowed the other flavors, which I did not find to be the case. Perhaps in their minds stollen is too similar to that much-despised holiday treat, the fruitcake.

Chocolate brownies with coconut-cream cheese filling swirled on top.
They were delicious, but we need to work on our decoration skills.

I’m sure I’m in a minority here in the Midwest, but I think fruitcake gets an undeserved bad rap. It’s become a cliché to dislike fruitcake, even among those who have never tried it. A well-made fruitcake, with a good balance of fruit and nuts, is a rich and wonderful thing. Perhaps, like marzipan, it appeals more to European tastes. I make a fruitcake that includes fresh or frozen fruit (I generally use frozen cherries), nuts, dried fruit, and coconut. Rather than candied fruits I include golden raisins and dried cherries. It’s simple to make and REALLY good. Let me know if you’d like the recipe.

Coconut-cream cheese brownies. It's hard to see in the photo but there is
a layer of coconut filling running through the center of the brownies.

For our second endeavor of the class, Chef Dennis challenged us to make a batch of brownies, stipulating that the recipe had to be altered in at least one significant way, i.e. not just adding nuts. My partner and I decided to make a coconut-cream cheese filling, which we spread in the middle and on top of the brownies before baking. They turned out really well. With all my talk of “European” tastes in this post, I’m reminded that the brownie is an American invention, and, when made with good ingredients, is one of the most satisfying pastries on either side of the Atlantic.

Take home: one loaf stollen, about twelve coconut-cream cheese brownies.

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