Using yeast is the most common approach to making Czech Christmas bread (Vánočka). It requires two separate risings during the preparation process. From beginning to end, set aside at least 4 ½ hours to make. This recipe makes a long loaf with between 16 and 20 servings.
For a brief history of this Czech holiday staple, see my post Vánočka (Czech Christmas Bread) – Brief history and recipes. It references the recipe below, as well as an appealing yeast-free version that includes farmers cheese. Enjoy!
- 40 to 42 grams fresh yeast (OR, 14 to 16 grams active dried yeast – usually two packets total)
- 1 teaspoon white sugar (for yeast activating)
- 200 grams warm milk or light cream (between 105-115°F or 41-46°C)
- 500 grams hladká mouka (OR, unbleached pastry flour i.e. Bob’s Red Mill brand), sifted
- 50 grams white sugar (for within dough)
- 20 grams granulated-vanilla sugar (OR, you could use 1 ½ tsp vanilla extract, but add it with the wet ingredients, along with perhaps 20 g extra sugar)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Zest from 1 medium or large lemon
- 2 egg yolks from large eggs
- 100 grams unsalted butter, melted
- 40 grams blanched almonds, chopped
- 40 grams raisins (or mix of raisins and dried cranberries), soaked in rum or warm water (eventually drained)
For egg wash and decorations:
- 1 beaten large egg, as egg wash
- Almonds (slices, slivers or blanched skinned whole)
- Optional: dusting of confectioner’s sugar
In a small bowl, soak the raisins in rum or warm water. Set aside.
In a medium-sized bowl, add the yeast, 1 tsp sugar and the warm (not hot) milk. Put in a warm place for about 15 minutes. This becomes the activated yeast mixture.
[Tip: In absence of a warm spot, create one by putting a pan of hot water on the bottom of a cold oven with the bowl on a rack above. Do not turn on the oven!]
In a large bowl (I use my KitchenAid mixer bowl), whisk together the sifted flour, 50 grams sugar, salt, vanilla sugar (if using), and lemon zest. Then roughly add in the egg yolks. Then add in melted butter, and then the activated yeast mix until not quite fully incorporated (dough may still look slightly shaggy). At this point, add in the chopped almonds and drained raisins (the soaking liquid is not used). Mix in ingredients with your hands to a light dough. It will be sticky, but if extremely so, you can add a teeny bit more flour. I do the kneading in my KitchenAid mixer for about 10 minutes with the dough attachment, but it can be done by hand for a touch longer.
First rise: Sprinkle a small amount of additional flour under the dough, in the bowl, and a bit up the sides of the bowl. Then sprinkle a light dusting on top of the dough. Cover the bowl with a light tea towel and let rise in a warm place (see tip further above) for about 2 hours, almost doubling in size.
In the emptied raisin bowl, beat the full egg to use as an egg wash. Set aside.
Remove the risen dough onto a floured work surface and slightly flatten. With a big knife or pastry cutter, cut the dough into two pieces so one part is 60% and the other 40%. Then gently shape both pieces into the shape of large knedlíky (cylindrical loaves), of similar thickness. Put the larger one aside. Then divide the smaller dough loaf into 4 equal-sized pieces. Set aside. Take the larger loaf and divide into 5 equal-sized pieces. Set aside. This gives you 9 pieces total.
Line a long baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
Making the 9 pieces into ropes: First, on a lightly floured surface, take two (2) of the prepared dough pieces (the biggest two, if bigger than the rest), then roll each into thin equal-length and diameter ropes, approximately 44 cm (17 inches) long. Put aside. Then take four (4) pieces and roll them into approximately 36 cm (14 inches) long ropes. Set aside. Repeat with the last three (3) pieces, only making them approximately 31 cm (12 inches) long. Put all aside to make space on your work surface.
Braiding and Assembling the Vanocka
For a helpful video showing the braiding process, click here. Note that the video author is not affiliated with my blog, and her recipe is not a farmers cheese version. I hope that my written description below is sufficiently instructive. Take the braiding step very slowly, at first. The bottom braid is the trickiest.
Take the second-longest group of four (4) “ropes” and line up vertically in front of you on work surface. Press the very top parts of the ropes together. You now start the braid of the bottom section of the vánočka, as follows:
- Middle – Pick up the rope that is second to the left (in the middle) and braid over (not under) the one to its right (3rd rope over), braiding somewhat tightly. Then,
- Left – Pick up the rope that is furthest to the left and braid over the one that is right next to it (the former 3rd rope). Then,
- Right – Pick up the rope that is furthest to the right (4th rope) and braid over the one that is immediately to its left. Then,
- Middle – Follow step # 1 with the equivalent in the “new” second to the left middle piece. Then Left step # 2 with the equivalent in the “new” piece in that position. Then Right step # 3.
- Continue repeating the steps above until there is no more dough to braid. Then squeeze all of the bottom ends together, and again the top, if necessary. Then, press the whole braid down to slightly flatten (make wider). This ensures that this bottom layer is sufficiently bigger than the second/middle layer you’ll make further below.
- With the side of your hand or a thin spatula handle, press a long ditch down the middle of the length of the braid.
- Carefully move the whole assembled braid onto the parchment-lined baking sheet. Again, slightly fix any ends of the braid that loosen.
- Brush some of the egg wash onto the top of the braid, concentrating on the ditch part and a little to the sides of the ditch. Set the baking sheet aside.
Now, do the braiding of the middle part of the vánočka on the work surface. To do this, take the three (3) shortest but equal-sized pieces. Squeeze together the tops of the three braids. Braid like a standard hair braid (pig tail) that goes Left piece over middle-Right piece over middle-Left piece over middle- Right piece over middle, etc., until the braid is finished. Squeeze the ends together. Again, put a ditch down the length of this braid, then carefully center it on top of the bottom-most braid. This new middle braid will be slightly shorter than the bottom braid. Then, lightly brush middle braid ditch area with egg wash.
The picture in the lower-right (above) shows the finished middle-layer braid centered on the egg washed bottom layer braid.
Now for the top part. Take the remaining two (2) ropes (longest of them all) and line them up for a twist. Again, squeeze together tops. Start twist of one piece over the other, until you reach the bottom. Tighten the twist a little before squeezing the ends together. This should be long enough to lie on top of the vánočka, again vertically, with the ends reaching slightly underneath the bottom-most braid. Position atop the middle of the second braid layer and lightly tuck under the bottom braid layer. Beautify as needed. DO NOT BRUSH WITH EGG WASH AT THIS POINT.
You simply create a twist of the two longest dough “ropes” (see bottom-left photo). Then place twist centered on top of the stacked braids and tuck long ends under the whole of the vánočka, and squeeze a little to secure.
Final rise: Cover the vánočka with a light tea towel. Let rise for about 1 more hour in a warm place, then return to work area.
Preheat the oven to 325° F (160° C). Gently brush the entire top of the risen vánočka with egg wash. Then sprinkle top and sides with sliced or slivered almonds. If using whole blanched almonds for the decoration, you’ll need to gently push them onto the dough, then do the egg wash. Otherwise, the heavier almond pieces may be prone to falling off. [Note: I prefer sliced or slivered for the top decoration for this version.]
Find four (4) medium-length (~12 cm) skewers (metal or wooden) long enough to go through most of the height of the vánočka with the skewer tops sticking out a bit. Space them evenly through the top layer of the vánočka. To avoid visible holes, put the skewers in the folds of the twist. The skewers help prevent layers from breaking apart during the baking. If a layer is leaning too far to one side (crooked), this is the time to gently correct it. When ready to go, tent the entire top with aluminum foil, avoiding touching the dough. [Foil can rest on skewer tops.]
Baking the Vánočka
Put the vánočka in the 325°F (160°C) oven and bake for about 45 minutes with the foil on. Then, remove foil and bake an additional 5 minutes, or until nicely browned. Test doneness with long skewer. If needed, bake a little longer, covering again with foil, only if necessary. When done, remove from oven and transfer (on parchment paper) to a cooling rack to cool completely. Remove skewers. Dust with confectioner’s sugar, if desired.
Slice and enjoy!
To keep fresh, cover the vánočka with foil or plastic wrap to prevent getting stale.
For more Czech Christmas cookie and sweet bread recipes, click here.