© The Telegraph, 3 December 2012
By Stephanie Clark
There’s something about the festive season that makes people reach for their aprons, get out a mixing bowl and start cooking. Even lazy bakers such as myself get an irrepressible urge to make a batch of Christmas biscuits or a tray of gingerbread men.
Perhaps it’s the memory of Christmases past, standing on a stool and helping my mother stir the pudding, that prompts me to rifle through my recipe books. And I’m sure I’m not the only home baker making a beeline for Bavarian biscuits and that most delicious of German Christmas treats, stollen.
But why their growing popularity? In the past few years, British demand for German Christmas baking has really taken off. Ditsch, the Mainz-based pretzel bakery founded in 1919 that’s one of the biggest bakery companies in Europe, already has 13 outlets in the UK – 11 in Birmingham, two in London – and plans to expand to 50 in the next four years.
“There are a lot of proper German bakers living here now, particularly in London. I know of at least three chains of German bakeries, and I simply think it’s something about the taste. They are delicious products,” says Raz Nehushtan, Ditsch’s UK managing director.
A growing number of northern Europeans living in Britain has also created a demand, and then there’s the effect of low-cost airline travel. More people have experienced the magic of a traditional German Christmas market and tried the food on offer. Britain is even importing the look. “I counted at least 10 cities in the UK where there are German Christmas markets opening,” says Raz.
While we feel a nostalgic affection for our traditional puddings and fruit cakes, the taste of the three German classics – Weinachts Plätzchen, as the beautifully decorated Christmas biscuits are known, Lebkuchen (a ginger-like biscuit) and stollen – are a tremendous addition.
The recipes are centuries-old, with intriguing histories, none more so than stollen, which originated in Dresden, Saxony, and of which the first mention was made in 1474. It was then a vastly different dish. Originally made from just flour, bread and yeast, and strictly policed, it took papal permission to allow the use of butter and increasingly richer ingredients. Said to be fashioned in the shape of the Christ Child wrapped in his swaddling clothes (it is dusted in icing sugar), today’s rich Dresden Christstollen has really been developed in the past 100 years; in Dresden, there are about 150 officially accredited makers, all of whom have secret family recipes, and there is even a stollen festival (this year it is on December 8). Our recipe is from Falko Burkert, a German master pastry chef whose East Lothian bakery and Edinburgh cafe, Falko Konditormeister (falko.co.uk) specialises in such fare.
All recipes can be made in advance: most need to be to allow the flavours to develop. They are easy to cook; the hardest part is keeping hands out of the biscuit tin. There’s another use as well: they are fabulous edible ornaments for the Christmas tree. Simply make a hole in the biscuit wide enough to take thin ribbon or fine wire, bake and decorate as normal, and when they are cold, string together and hang them. It’s a fun way to get children involved and decorate the tree – another German Christmas import – at the same time.