This is a variation on the beloved Czech Christmas sweet bread (Vanočká) that is usually made with yeast. Instead, this version uses baking powder and other leavening agents. It also includes soft-style farmers cheese (měkký tvaroh), which increases its richness and gives its inside a slightly softer texture. It is quicker to make than its yeast-raised cousin (soon to also be posted), only requiring about 2 hours or less, from start to finish.
Farmers cheese is commonly used in Czech baking and cooking. It’s mildly flavored and creamy in texture. To an American’s taste, it is somewhere between ricotta, cream cheese, and cottage cheese. To learn more about farmers cheese (tvaroh), visit my post for Strawberry Dumplings, which provides detailed info on both the soft and hard versions of this beloved ingredient. For your reference, the two photos below (top row) show examples of soft farmers cheese I bought in the USA. The two photos in the second row show the one I used in this recipe, purchased in Czech Republic.
Traditionally, this Christmas bread includes rum soaked raisins, lemon zest, and usually almonds. However, you can vary the fruit you use, though I do still recommend using almonds. In this version, I used rum soaked raisins and dried cranberries, chopped candied orange peel, lemon zest, a little of the rum from the soaking, and chopped almonds in the dough. Right before baking, I pressed in blanched skinned whole almonds and then brushed with an egg wash.
- 150 grams unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
- 250 grams soft-style farmers cheese (měkký tvaroh) – See note at bottom of the page.
- 150 grams confectioner’s sugar (cukr moučka)
- 8 to 10 grams vanilla sugar (or 1 ½ tsp vanilla extract)
- Zest from a medium lemon
- 2 large eggs
- 2 tablespoons rum, plus more for soaking dried fruit (i.e. raisins)
- 0.5 dl (1/4 cup) milk or cream
- 70 grams raisins or other dried fruit (i.e. cranberries), soaked in rum and/or chopped candied fruit, if desired
- 50 grams chopped or slivered almonds, plus more for decorating
- 500 grams unbleached pastry flour (i.e. Bob’s Red Mill) or hladká mouka, plus a little more, as needed
- 24 grams baking powder (2 packets Czech prášek do pečiva)
- 1 teaspoon salt
For egg wash and decoration:
- 1 beaten egg, for egg wash
- Almonds (slices, slivers or blanched skinned whole)
- Optional: dusting of confectioner’s sugar
Soak raisins and/or other dried fruit in rum for at least 30 minutes, or more. Drain, reserving drained off rum, if desired. [That could be used towards the 2 tablespoons needed when making the dough below.]
Making the Dough: In a large bowl, mix together the softened butter, soft-style farmers cheese (tvaroh), confectioner’s sugar, vanilla sugar (or extract), lemon zest, eggs, 2 Tbs rum, milk, 70 grams of fruit (raisins drained from rum and/or others), and 50 grams nuts. Finally, gradually add flour, baking powder and salt to the dough. Thoroughly mix in to form a light dough. [I do all of this in my standup mixer with the paddle attachment.] The dough will likely still be a little sticky. With your hand (or a sturdy spatula) gather the dough, in the bowl, to a round mass (see photo on the left). If it doesn’t easily form one, then dust with a little flour and mix again, until it does.
Remove the dough onto a lightly floured large work surface, and slightly flatten into a large disk. Remove the 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% (see photo below left). 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 (see photo below right). Set aside. Take the larger loaf and divide into 5 equal-sized pieces (also shown below right). Set aside. This gives you 9 pieces total.
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.
Line a long baking sheet with parchment paper and place nearby your work surface.
Braiding and Assembling the Farmers Cheese 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 (photos further below):
- 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 assembled braid to the parchment-lined baking sheet. Again, slightly fix any ends that loosened.
- 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 (photos below). To do this, take the three 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 and narrower than the bottom braid. Then, lightly brush middle braid ditch area with egg wash.
Now for the top part. Take the remaining two same length ropes (longest of all) and line them up for a twist. Again, squeeze together tops. Start twist of one piece over the other (holding the top in place), 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 beyond the ends of the bottom-most braid. Position atop the middle of the second braid layer and lightly tuck under the bottom braid layer. Beautify as needed.
To ensure the braid layers remain in place, consider placing two or three skewers through the top braid to bottom. Place in the folds so the skewer holes won’t be noticeable. Then, let the whole assembled vánočka rest for 15 minutes. It will be about 40 cm (15 ½ inches) long, at this point. Preheat oven to 175°C (350°F) while you wait.
Put the prepared tvarohová vanočká in the preheated oven and bake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until golden brown and a skewer pushed into the middle (or removed) comes out clean. When done, remove from the oven and transfer (on the parchment paper) to a cooling rack to cool. Once mostly or fully cool, dust with some confectioner’s sugar, as desired. Slice and enjoy!
For more Czech Christmas cookie and sweet bread recipes click here.
Just looking at this braided beauty brings up memories of Christmas! The ones my Grandpa made looked exactly like yours. Looking forward to trying this recipe in a few weeks.
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Your Grandpa rocked making you nice vánočka! I hope you enjoy it!
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