Medieval bread bakers hard at work

Origin stories abound. Some have a basis in written history; others are more folklore than fact. Skeptics will take it all with a grain of salt; or, even better, an extra spoonful of sugar…

Among the well documented sweet breads, the long, oval stollen dates back to the early 1400s when it was sold at the famous

Striezelmarkt in Dresden, one of Germany’s oldest Christmas fairs. Stollen literally means “tunnel” and probably refers to the entrance to a mine, as that region, Saxony, was a silver and tin mining center. However, the oval shape also has a religious connotation as a symbolic representation of Christ in swaddling clothes. Because the Catholic Church had strict rules about fasting during the pre-Christmas Advent season, bakers were forbidden to use butter and had to substitute inferior tasting vegetable oil extracted from turnips. However, in 1647, in what became known as the Butter Brief, Saxon Prince Elector Ernst and his brother Duke Albrecht petitioned Pope Innocent X to use butter in their stollen because the oil was too expensive. Undoubtedly,

The stollen queen receives tribute during Stollenfest at Dresden's Streizelmarkt.

those wily nobles were also thinking about their taste buds. The Pope eventually granted the petition on condition that the Saxon bakers pay a tax to support the building of the Freiberg Cathedral. Soon, the addition of aromatic spices, dried fruits and nuts, and the dusting of icing sugar turned the simple bread into a rich, but not too sweet yuletide treat.

A century later stollen also served as a symbol of political power. In 1730, August the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, arranged a huge festival at a military campground to demonstrate the strength of the Saxon army. All of Europe’s principalities were represented including King Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia, 47 princes and dukes, 69 counts, and 38 barons. The pièce de résistance was an enormous stollen weighing 1.8 tons made by royal master baker Zacharias and 60 “basin knights” and baked for six hours in a specially constructed oven. The recipe included 3,600 eggs and 126 pails of milk and had to be cut with a special 20-foot long knife. Today, that tradition has been revived as an annual tourist attraction in Dresden. A mammoth stollen weighing about three tons is carted through the streets of the old city, followed by a procession of bakers and pastry chefs to the Striezelmarkt where it is cut with a reproduction of the original knife and sold by the piece.

While the butter battle was raging in Saxony, bakers at noble estates in Normandy were working the region’s excellent butter into bread that eventually became the beloved brioche. The name comes from brier, an old Norman adaptation of the French broyer, to pound, referring to the lengthy kneading of the dough. One of the first recipes for the bread appeared in La Varenne’s Le pâtisserie françois published in 1655 during the reign of Louis XIV. Then, as techniques and equipment improved, baker’s yeast replaced brewer’s yeast, better ovens and molds became available, and the incomparable brioche, both sweet and savory, blossomed as the ne plus ultra of fine baking in France. As Marie Antoinette famously said “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche,” not “let them eat cake.”

Despite the Revolution, a plethora of regional brioche soon entered the repertoire, among them the ball-topped Parisienne, delicate brioche mousseline, brioche de Saint-Genix filled with chocolates, the gigantic brandy-flavored brioche of the Vendée, and from the Vosges, a hearty brioche stuffed with hazelnuts, raisins, and dried pears.

Dried fruits, especially raisins, have often been incorporated into other sweet yeast breads, like the babka. The name means

chocolate babka from Aunt Heddy's

“grandmother” in Polish, and the original shap, with a flared bottom, was thought to resemble a ladies skirt. Traditional throughout Eastern Europe, the babka arrived in America with late nineteenth century immigrants and has been a favorite of food mavens ever since. In New York, it has become a culinary icon, starring in an episode of the hit TV show Seinfeld and creating a buzz on Chowhound.com with posts about the best of the local babka bakeries. Along the way the babka has taken on different shapes, both round and rectangular, as well as new flavors and fillings like chocolate, cheese, and fruit. In Brooklyn, Aunt Heddy’s, a wholesale bakery run by third generation Polish immigrant Richard Zablocki since 1978, currently sells a million and a half babka annually to retail outlets and directly to consumers online from their website. A rectangular cinnamon flavored babka covered with streusel crumbs is the pride of that New York City bastion of fine baked goods, William Greenberg Jr. Desserts located on the Upper East Side.

Shape also provided a name for the central European sweet bread variously spelled kugelhupf, kougelhopf, gugelhopf, or kouglof,

kugelhopf in a bakery window

derived from the German kugel, round like a ball. Popular in most of the countries adjacent to Germany—Austria, Luxembourg, French Alsace, and Switzerland—since the seventeenth century, this rich, light confection, laced with raisins and often flavored with lemon peel, is usually made in a distinctive fluted mold with a central funnel. In Alsace, where the kugelhopf has attained the status of a national treasure, bakers vie for best of show at the annual kugelhopf festival in Riberville on the first Sunday in June. In families, large, decorative earthenware molds are passed down from generation to generation, and collections of these handsome molds are on display in local museums. At the Maison du Pain d’Alsace, a living museum on the Rue du Sel in Sélestat, visitors can watch pâtissiers demonstrating the preparation of the dough, or join a hands-on session to help prepare kugelhopf and other regional specialties.

Austria also claims the kugelhopf, a tradition at Viennese cafes like

Café Demel

Café Demel for jause, the local equivalent of afternoon tea. But the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef had an even better arrangement: in his fifties he fell in love with renowned actress Katrina Schratt who was in her thirties, and every day she baked a fresh kugelhopf, ready at 4:30 p.m. when the Emperor stopped by for jause. For those of us who don’t have an afternoon rendezvous, delectable kougelhopf is available at Kurt Gutenbrunner’s Café Sabarsky, the wonderful recreation of a Viennese café in New York’s Neue Gallerie at 86th Street and Fifth Avenue. It is made by the pastry chefs who also prepare the delectable desserts for Gutenbrunner’s downtown restaurants, Wallsé and Blaue Gans.

According to Larousse Gastronomique, Eugene, head chef to Prince Schwartzenberg, the Austrian ambassador during the Napoleonic era, gave the kugelhopf recipe to the great French chef Câreme, who helped to spread its fame. Then, in the 1840s, an Alsatian pâtissier from Strasbourg named Georges opened a pastry shop in Paris on the Rue du Coq where kougelhopf became a succés fou (a wild success), with hundreds flying out of the store every day.

There is an ongoing debate about the inspiration for another brioche-style confection, the light, spongy, liquor-soaked baba au rhum. Was it the kugelhopf or the babka? Its origins have been attributed to a deposed Polish king, the cultured bon vivant Stanislas Leszczynski, who held court in Alsace after he lost his throne in the early eighteenth century during complicated political

authentic Ali-Baba from Pâtisserie Stohrer

chess maneuvers involving Sweden and Russia. He lived first in Wissembourg and later in Luneville after the French presented him with the Duchy of Lorraine. Stanislas, so the story goes, either found the local kougelhopf too dry or brought back a dry babka from a trip, and saturated the bread in wine, probably the Tokay sent to him annually by the King of Hungary. As the exiled king was very fond of The Book of Thousand and One Nights, he named his creation after the its hero, Ali Baba. The other possibility, of course, is that the name derived from babka. Take your choice. In any case, the baba became popular at court, and Stanislas’ pâtissier, Nicholas Stohrer, refined the recipe and used a dariole mold to change the shape. When Stanislas’ daughter, Marie, married the French king Louis XV in 1725, Stohrer went along with her to Versailles. Five years later he opened Pâtisserie Stohrer, what is today, the oldest pastry shop in Paris, adorned with handsome murals painted in the 1860s by the artist Paul Baudry. Stohrer’s successors still serve the famed baba, which, by the nineteenth century, was made with a rum syrup instead of wine. Today, the shop sells four versions: baba au rhum, Ali-Baba with raisins and pastry cream, baba chantilly with red fruits, and Ali Baba with saffron, especially for New Years celebrations.

In the 1840s another renowned Parisian pâtissier, Auguste Julien, created a delectable baba variant: the savarin, a homage to the great gastronome Brillat-Savarin. Using the same basic dough, Julien replaced the raisins with finely chopped candied orange zest, and baked the savarin in a ring mold. Then it was soaked in rum syrup or kirsch and the center filled with pastry cream and fresh fruit. He is also credited by some pastry historians with another baba variation, the gorenflot, a large, hexagonal baba named for a monk who was one of Alexandre Dumas’s heroes.

Italy’s contribution to the pantheon of sweet yeast breads is panettone. Romantic legend-lovers will appreciate the tale of the obscure baker who provided a name for the tall, dome-shaped Milanese raisin and candied fruit favorite. Most versions start with a poor baker named Toni, in the court of the Duke Ludovico il Moro, who had a beautiful daughter Adalgisa. In one version, a duke at the court fell in love with her and disguised himself as a baker’s apprentice to work in her father’s kitchen. There he

Italian historian and priest Ludovico Antonio Muratori

developed delicious bread that became so popular, the baker became rich and had enough money to give his daughter a dowry to marry the duke. In one variation, the duke is, instead, just a baker’s apprentice, and in yet another, Toni is the young baker who saves the day when the cook burns the planned dessert and he serves the duke bread made with leftover dough, butter, and dried fruits. In any case, the hero gets the girl and the bread is henceforth known as pan di toni. A more likely story comes from the pen of historian Ludovico Antonio Muratori (1672-1750) who suggested that panettone dates back to pagan celebrations and was adapted as a large Christmas bread baked with an incised cross—a pan del ton, meaning a big luxurious loaf. The custom was to break off a piece for each member of the family as a token of family unity. Today, serving any one of these sweet yeast breads is a lovely way to continue that tradition.

Aunt Heddy’s
234 North 9th Street
Brooklyn, NY
(718) 782-0582

Café Sabarsky
1048 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10028
(212) 288-0665
www.cafesabarsky.com

Pâtisserie Stohrer
51 Rue Montorgeuil
Paris, France 75002
01 42 33 38 20
www.stohrer.fr

Café Demel
Kohlmarkt 14
Vienna, Austria 1010
43 1 535 17 17 0
www.demel.com

Maison du Pain d’Alsace
Rue du Sel
Sélestat, France 67600
03 88 58 45 90
www.maisondupain-d-alsace.com

William Greenberg Jr. Desserts
1100 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10028
(212) 744-0304
www.wmgreenbergdesserts.com

 

Meryle Evans is a food journalist and culinary historian who has written extensively about the world’s cuisines for over twenty years. She was an editor of the American Heritage Cookbook, the Horizon Cookbook, and the eighteen volume Southern Heritage Cookbook Library. As a Contributing Editor at Food Arts, Meryle has covered cooking and culture from Australia to Chile, Turkey to Tunisia for the past fourteen years. She also lectures on various aspects of culinary history and was the curator of ” The Confectioners Art,” an exhibit at the American Craft Museum. Other food related activities include judging the James Beard and IACP cookbook awards and the Tabasco Community Cookbook Competition.