Over the years many Christmas programmes on Radio Prague have been dedicated to the Czech festive cuisine but there are still specialties which have been somewhat neglected and which definitely deserve more attention. Among them vánočka or Christmas sweet bread. In today’s programme we’ll be looking at this traditional type of pastry. For that I’m joined by translator Lucie Mikolajková, a mother of two and also a fine cook, who will show me how it is made.
Well, as the name suggests, it’s a traditional Christmas pastry, so you eat it around Christmas time. But as far as I know today it’s sold in pastry shops all year round, so basically whenever you feel like it but at home it’s usually baked around Christmas time.
We should also say that Vánoce is the Czech word for Christmas and vánočka is Christmas sweet bread.
Now, we are in your kitchen and we are about to make vánočka, or rather you are about to make vánočka and I’ll be watching you. So what do we need?
Well, the ingredients are pretty simple. What is not simple, what is actually quite complicated, is the process of making it. Because it’s made of leavened dough which is very hard to make and it’s very hard to get it right, so I can’t guarantee that we will actually get it right, because I don’t always get it right. But basically, we need regular baking flour, a little bit of salt, a little bit of fine baking sugar, a little bit of vanilla sugar, a little bit of lemon peel and then the final and great ingredient – we need baker’s yeast, which is what makes the vánočka rise and makes it ready to be baked. And then we also need eggs and some shortening or butter, whatever you prefer, if you prefer it to be less fatty, you use butter. If you want it to be not as dry, you use shortening, but then of course, it’s not as healthy. So for the healthy minded it’s better to use butter.
Also I think it tastes nicer. Everything with butter tastes nicer, at least according to my palate.
People say that if you use shortening, the sweet bread is – I guess you could say – wetter, it’s not as d ry as with butter. So it depends on whether you go for the texture or the taste.
Does it resemble any of the pastries familiar in the English speaking world?
You know, I’m not sure, really. Because I haven’t spent a lot of time in the UK for example. But I can’t quite remember having anything similar in the United States.
So we have all the ingredients here: the flour, the sugar, also raisins… And then we also need some almonds, just to sprinkle on top.
Right, yes. And you have to use the large golden raisins…
Yes, sultanas. You can’t use the tiny little black ones.
So, tell me, what do we start with?
We start with making the dough. So we take the flour, about 500 grams or so for a single sweet bread, so you put that in a bowl and then you sprinkle just a little bit of salt on top and then you add the sugar. Then you grind a little bit of lemon over it. And then you take one cube of baker’s yeast. Baker’s yeast is sold in cubes, they’re standard size sold here. And you take the little cube of the baker’s yeast and you break it into tiny drops and you sort of sprinkle it over the flour and sugar. And then the magic starts. Because really, sometimes it seems like magic to me, because you never know what the yeast will do and how it will behave, and it really depend on even how you mix the dough, how you touch it. Sometimes it seems almost like some sort of witchery.
Real Christmas magic…
Then you put the fat, whatever you decide to use, butter or shortening, and two eggs and some milk into a bowl or into a pan and then you warm it all up. You have to let the fat dissolve with the eggs and the milk. And you have to get it to about body temperature, I would say, 37–38 degrees or so. It cannot be over 41 degrees because then the yeast would react with it. So, you warm it all up in the pan, you have to mix it, so the eggs don’t coagulate and then you pour the mixture over the yeast. And the yeast starts working, it starts rising. You leave it for about five or seven minutes and it starts making like a sort of cap over everything. And once it has risen a little bit, you cover it with the rest of the flour that’s around it, you cover it with the sugar, then you put in the raisins, and then you have to mix it into dough, which is another very involved and special process because you have to let the air in to make the yeast work, so you have to mix it specially. So you have to let the air in, it starts sort of huffing and puffing, the dough will do that. And once it stops sticking to the spoon or whatever you use to mix it, you’re done. And then you make it into a ball, because you have to make it as small as possible so that it has space to rise, so you make it into a ball in the bowl, you sprinkle a little bit of flour over it and you put it in some warm space. But like not directly over a stove or on the heater, just in a warm space and then you let it sit and rise, which takes quite a while. It can take anything from one and a half to three hours, depends on how well you’ve made it, basically, what mood the yeast is in today. So now, we have the dough and we have to let it sit so we have plenty of time to talk about whatever you want to talk about.
I would like to talk also about other items on the Czech Christmas table. Some of the dishes or sweets have to be made well in advance to be ready for the Christmas table, first of all the Christmas cookies. When do you usually start making them?
Well, I have to say I’m quite terrible at this because while many people start well before Christmas, usually in mid-November, I start like the second week of December. But then I also don’t make as many kinds as I probably should or am expected to. Because some people, especially women, pride themselves in how many kinds of cookies they can make, and they make like sixteen, twenty kinds of cookies. I usually make two or three. So it doesn’t take as long but if you want to be productive and make fifteen kinds of cookies, you have to start weeks earlier.
That’s the cookies. Now, the main festive day for the majority of Czech families is Christmas Eve, December 24th. What is on the table on the 24th?
On our table, you mean? Because I think it’s not as clear cut and families have developed their own traditions. I think we can agree that there should be some kind of fish…
For dinner. There usually is carp but I know that a lot of people are not too fond of carp because of the taste. So nowadays I know that a lot of people have salmon or cod or tuna or whatever they like but usually there’s some kind of fish.
So let’s say the traditional Christmas Eve dinner is fish and potato salad. But when it comes to lunch, or the midday meal, families differ substantially around the country.
That’s right. Until recently I didn’t realize how different the customs were. I know that in the north of the country they make this mushroom dish, it’s called kuba in Czech.
…with pearl barley and mushrooms…
And that’s what they eat for lunch. But for example in my family, we never ate anything because there is a tradition of fasting. Because children are told that if you fast on Christmas Eve, you will see a golden pig in the evening. And usually my dad would put a little golden pig decoration that I would find hidden, so that was really nice of him.
… and the feasting. Because first you fast and then you feast.
So for lunch many families either fast or have some meatless dish, such as thick soup or white sausage which doesn’t contain much meat or potato pancakes, also that mushroom dish called kuba, but also many families eat vánočka for breakfast and for lunch. Which brings us back to vánočka.
All right. Yes, so let’s check. The dough has to actually enlarge, it has to be twice the size it was before it started to rise. So I see we have achieved the desired result and we can start actually making it. Which is another very involved process. So let’s go over and see if we can make it. So we put some baking paper on [the tray] because obviously we don’t want it to stick. And then what you have to do, you have to take the dough and you have to make a sort of longish loaf and then you cut that into nine pieces.
Why nine pieces?
Because it’s made from nine strands. So you take the pieces and you roll them out into long strands.
Did we mention that it’s braided?
Yes, it’s braided and it’s very complicated braiding, because it’s made from nine strands. So let’s see what we have. We have nine strands rolled out and you start with four strands at the bottom, which is probably the most complicated to make because it’s hard to get it right, you have to go over two strands. Then you put three strands in the middle which is basically like making a plait, like plaiting your hair, so that’s easy and then two strands go on top, which you just so of roll together. I actually did some research before you came to talk to me and I read somewhere that there is actually some deep symbolism in the number of strands that the sweet bread is made of. It goes back to the early 19th century, that’s the first time it’s mentioned and that the four strands at the bottom are meant to represent the four elements, water, earth, fire and air. And then the three strands in the middle represent the human condition, the human traits, which are reason, will and feeling or emotion. And then the two strands on top represent that which gets us closer to God, which is knowledge and love. So that’s the symbolism of the Christmas sweet bread. I think it’s pretty neat, actually.
And when you eat the vánočka, all that comes into you…
Unfortunately we don’t have enough time to make the vánočka in real time, so we’ll use some radio magic and speed it up a bit. So let me just see how you make the first tier.
All right. Well, out of the nine pieces that you have, you take the four and then you have to roll them out into fairly long strands, I would say a foot in length, it depends on how long and big you want the sweet bread to be. So you roll them out and now you have four strands. The first tier is actually the most complicated one because making a plait out of four strands is something I have a lot of trouble with. So I really apologize if this comes out a bit jumbled. So basically you put the four strands and join them on top, so that you have a starting point.
How do you join them?
You just sort of smash them, mush them together, the dough joins naturally. So you just press them together and they stay together. And then you take the strand – I start from the right because I’m right-handed and you put one strand over the other from right to left, just over one strand. And then you take the strand on the left and do the same and put it on the strand on the right. And then it starts getting complicated because that was just the first step and now you have to go over two strands to make it hold together. So you always take the strand from the left and put it over two strands to the right and then you take the one from the right and put it over two strands to the left. And then you go all the way until you reach the end. But actually that’s only a half of the tier done. Because you haven’t done the other half. So then you have to turn it around and you have to plait it from the middle because you’ve basically only plaited the one half of it. And then you have to undo what you’ve joined here and you have to plait the rest and that’s the hardest part because you have to go from the bottom. You know, you put the strands over each other on the bottom. So you just put them under each other and that’s how you make the full plait. So that’s the first tier done and I’m so glad it’s over.
So not only is there a lot of symbolism involved in it but also a lot of effort.
Yes, that’s right. It’s time consuming, it’s a very involved process. I mean you have to pay a lot of attention to what you’re doing. There’s a lot of superstition connected with making the sweet bread and I believe it’s because it was so complicated that people invented a lot of crazy superstitions about why it didn’t come out right. So for example the mistress of the house, she was the only one allowed to make the sweet bread. And when she started, she had to stop talking and she couldn’t say a word until she was done. And she always had to wear a white apron. Some sources even say that she had to jump up and down while the dough was rising so that she would help it rise better.
So we’ve made the plaits and then you have to prop it up because it wouldn’t hold together in the oven. So you have to get sticks which you stick into the dough, like usually four sticks to hold it all together.
So it won’t slide…
So the plaits won’t just slide and fall apart. It has to stay together. And then now once you have it like this, you still need to let it sit and rise some more. That’s the third part, you know. The dough basically needs to be left to rise three times. First when you make it, then when you’ve made it and let it sit and then when the sweet bread is done, you have to let it sit some more. And it rises like this on the stove or you just let it sit and then once it’s been sitting for like an hour, you can see that it’s actually increased in size and then you can put it in the oven.
So now we have all the three plaited tiers sitting one on top of another…
We have the sticks put in that hold it all together and then the final touch is you take some egg white and you use a pastry brush to brush it all over the sweet bread. You cover all of it with egg white which makes it nice and shiny and crusty.
It gives it a sort of glaze.
Yes. And then on top of that – because now it’s nicely sticky – you take some cut almonds and you just sprinkle them all over which makes it look really good on the table. So you just put the almonds all over it. And that’s it. You’re done. And you can start baking. And baking is another involved process. So let me just explain. You have to bake it at two different temperatures for a certain amount of time. So first you start on 165 degrees Celsius for about fifteen to twenty minutes. And once that is done you lower the temperature to about 140 degrees and you go on for another fifteen minutes. But around a half of that time you take another wooden stick and you stick it all through the sweet bread and if nothing sticks to it, if it comes out clean, then you’re done and you just let it sit for the rest of the time. You turn off the oven and you let it sit and finish. And that’ll be it. Hopefully it’ll stay all together and we will have a nice, beautiful plaited sweet bread.
So we’re at the oven now, looking at the sweet bread. It’s looking good, we have about one minute to go. So let’s see what comes out.
So, what do you think?
It looks wonderful, it looks just like from the cookery books.
Let me get it out. All right it hasn’t fallen apart, not even a little bit. That’s so great. I’m so happy we could get it right.
How long do we need to wait now?
You need to wait until it’s completely cold. You can’t cut it until it’s gone completely cold, room temperature. And then once you get it to room temperature, you can sprinkle some powdered sugar all over it which gives it an even nicer taste.
And while the vánočka is cooling down… What are the other dished on the Christmas table here in the Czech Republic? What do Czechs usually eat on the 25th and 26th.
I think it depends again, because I’ve heard so many people say different things. But we usually have goose on the 25th, usually with dumplings and sauerkraut. So that’s our 25th. What about yours?
Either goose or duck. Mostly duck because we are a small family, so a duck is enough.
Yes, well, there’s usually quite a lot of us, so we have goose.
Also many people have turkey on the 25th or 26th. Also venison is popular on one of the Christmas days in many families… So now the vánočka has cooled down nicely, so you can sprinkle some sugar over it.
Yes, we will do that, sprinkle it with some powdered sugar. Here we go. You have to do that when the sweet bread has cooled completely because otherwise obviously the sugar will smelt and stick to it and it won’t look good or taste good. And now it’s basically ready for eating.
You cut it like you do bread.
Exactly. You just cut little slices. And then you can either eat it as it is which a lot of people do but some people think it’s too dry to be eaten just like this. And it really depends on your taste. Most people I know, if they want to eat it with something, they put some jam on it.
My mother likes it with butter.
Or butter and jam. And honey. So basically wherever the fancy takes you. Maybe some American listeners could try peanut butter and jelly and tell us how it tasted.
So Lucie Mikolajková, thank you very much for showing me the complicated process of making vánočka.
Well, thanks for being here and for having the patience to stay so long.