Forget the fruitcake and treat yourself to classic stollen

Guglhupf Bakery, Pâtisserie and Café will host its 3rd Annual German Christmas Market from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. The patio will feature live music, delicious food, hot beverages such as German Glühwein, holiday gifts, kids’ activities, artwork and collectibles.

Forget the fruitcake and treat yourself to classic stollen

By Jill Warren Lucas

Susan Lueck stood patiently on line with a contentedly optimistic look on her face, not unlike a good-all-year child on the night before Christmas.

“Oh, I wait for this moment all year,” admitted Lueck, who used to live near Guglhupf Bakery, Pâtisserie & Café in Durham before relocating a few years ago to Camden, S.C. “Driving three hours to get their stollen is totally worth it to me. We send these to friends all across the country.”

Lueck carefully recounted her order – 24 large loaves and 20 small – before her husband toted several paper sacks to their car for the drive back home.

“You can’t imagine how happy this makes me,” she said. “I’m of German heritage and I used to bake them myself, but it’s a long process. Bar none, these are the best I ever had. They’ve very addictive. Once you start eating them, you just can’t stop.”

Guglhupf owner Claudia Cooper is used to such expressions of devotion. “We’ve had people in tears when they try our baked goods,” she said, welcoming the line of customers that filled the shop and stretched up the outdoor patio steps. “Sometimes there are the most delightful meltdowns in here.”

There are other holiday specialties available at Guglhupf this time of year, but none command the singular adoration of the Dresden-style stollen. The bakery may produce as many as 4,000 loaves this year – each one made by baker Chris Astraikis.

“It sounds like a lot, but a good bakery In Dresden might make that many in a week,” Astraikis said as he worked the lustrous dough, which he said contains “just enough flour to hold the butter together.”

Astraikis figures that each large loaf contains about two-thirds of a pound of butter, along with enough rum-soaked golden raisins, slivered almonds and candied citrus peel to ensure that each delicious bite is colorfully studded.

“Not bad,” he agreed with a grin after sampling a slice. “There are hundreds of recipes for stollen, but this is the one we’ve used at Guglhupf for years. People like knowing they can count on it, and it’s something that gets better with time. If you like it now, you’ll really love it in a few weeks.”

Stollen’s inherent durability makes it the ideal long-distance gift. Encased in clarified butter and two coats of sugar – first granulated, then snowy powdered – the cake is resistant to spoilage and matures over time to reveal even greater depth of flavor. If kept in a cool dark cupboard, they can last for months – though that’s not very likely.

Making stollen is a multi-day process, and Astraikis handles every detail himself. The batch he processed last Sunday – starting with dough and marinated fruit and nuts prepped hours earlier — yielded 45 large loaves. But they wouldn’t be ready for customers until they had an overnight rest and a final dusting of sugar.

Astraikis was a blur of energy that morning. Between kneading and resting the stollen dough, he cut dozens of zimtstern, small six-pointed-star cookies made from ground almonds and egg whites with a lush coat of cinnamon-infused royal icing. The scraps go back into the mixer with more ingredients to make the next batch.

“If you’re not careful,” he said, being just that as he measured in ingredients, “you can wind up with thousands of these.”

Astraikas, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America’s prestigious baking program, has been baking professionally for about 20 years, the last dozen at Guglhupf. The dark, fragrant spices that flavor many German cookies strike him as a magical blend, and he finds a sort of serenity in working with dough. Also, it’s pretty good exercise.

“There’s a reason you don’t see a lot of overweight bakers,” quipped Astaikas, who appears to not indulge in many of the sweets he bakes. “I probably handle a thousand pounds of dough every day, and often a lot more. It’s hard work, but it’s really satisfying.”

Astraikis takes the compliments of customers to heart and knows that many, like Susan Lueck, travel far to buy the traditional delights that he and colleagues produce daily. He knows it’s especially true of the stollen, which generates a lively mail-order business this time of year.

“I’ve heard a lot of people say they don’t like stollen, but they love ours,” he said. “It’s not like the fruitcake that gets passed around. People who get these keep them.”

Astraikis works the portioned dough quickly and thoroughly, folding and stretching pieces to develop glutens while tucking in fruit to minimize surface scorching. The last touch before going into a steam-filled convention oven is to fashion the classic lumpy shape, which is meant to suggest the rumpled cloth that swaddled the baby Jesus.

Though only one batch was baked this day, Astraikis said he typically has three going at once in various stages of progress. “I’ll be working pretty much every day until Christmas, but I don’t mind,” he said. “I think about people having them on their holiday table. It makes me want to make them really nice so they are enjoyed.”

Stollen will be available through the holidays in three sizes: the large loaf for $22.50, the small for $13.50, and a personal star-shape mini-loaf for $5.25. If you’d like Guglhupf to ship these treasures to loved ones in time for Christmas, be sure to place your order by Dec. 16.

Lucas blogs at Eating My Words. Follow her at @jwlucasnc.

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