Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Vánočka - Czech Christmas Bread

Vánočka - Czech Christmas Bread
This bread is a Christmas tradition in my family and not one year has gone by in my life when I haven't enjoyed it as part of my Christmas morning meal.  In lieu of a big write up here, I will direct you to the bottom of the page where there is a copy of the cover article that I recently wrote for a local magazine highlighting this family tradition. 

Vánočka – Czech Christmas Bread

Makes 1 large or 2 medium braids
dry ingredients

5 to 6 C. unsifted organic flour (I use 2 C. white and the rest whole wheat)
1/2 C. organic sugar
1 ½ tsp. salt
1 tsp. grated lemon peel
1/4 tsp. ground mace
2 packages active dry yeast
1 C. organic milk
2/3 C. water
1/4 C. (½ stick) organic butter
2 organic eggs (at room temperature)
1/2 C. almonds, slivered
1/2 C. organic raisins
milk, water and butter

In a large bowl thoroughly mix 1½ cups flour, sugar, salt, lemon peel, mace, and undissolved yeast.

Combine milk, water, and butter in a saucepan. Heat over low heat until liquids are very warm (120°F.-130°F). Butter does not need to melt. Gradually add to dry in­gredients and beat 2 minutes at medium speed of electric mixer, scraping bowl occasionally. Add eggs and ½ cup flour. Beat at high speed 2 minutes, scraping bowl occasionally. Stir in almonds, raisins and enough additional flour to make a stiff dough. Turn out onto lightly floured board and knead until smooth and elastic, about 8 to 10 minutes. Cover with plastic wrap, then a towel. Let rest 60 minutes.

dough, ready to rise

To make large braid: Divide dough into 4 equal pieces. Roll 3 pieces into ropes 14 inches long. Braid together on greased baking sheet. Tuck ends under to seal. Divide remaining piece into 3 equal pieces. Roll into ropes 9 inches long. Braid together. Place small braid on large braid. Tuck ends under to seal.

To make medium braids: Divide dough in half. Shape each half as above.

getting ready to braid the dough

a job for two!!

almost done!

Cover loosely with a towel and let rise 60 minutes. Brush with one whole beaten egg. Bake at 375°F for 35 minutes for large braid, 25 minutes for medium braid. May need to cover the bread with foil halfway through cooking to prevent the top from browning too much. Remove from baking sheet and cool on wire rack. While warm frost with confectioners' sugar frosting, if desired.

bottom braid

ready to rise again
ready to bake!!

hot from the oven!!
delicious breakfast with fresh fruit, eggs and veggie sausage!

magazine article page #1

page #2

page #3

page #4

My article (from the December 2013 issue of Pleasant Valley Life magazine):

     Christmas morning is definitely one of the most exciting times of the year. I can remember as a child lying in bed in the early morning hours wondering if every gust of wind or creak in the wall was the sound of reindeer up above, or if the noises from downstairs might be Santa and not just my dad putting out presents and eating cookies. The thrill of finding out what gifts you were going to get as a child slowly gave way to the excitement of giving gifts as an adult and wondering what the recipient was going to think. One of the best memories of my life happened unexpectedly on a Christmas morning nine years ago when my wonderful husband proposed to me. Yet despite all these surprises and changes, one thing that has remained a constant in my life is what is served for breakfast every Christmas morning: Vánočka, a traditional Czech Christmas bread. (pronounced Va-noch-ka)
     Now when Christmastime comes around, my family has its own traditions. Early in the month of December we always venture out to one of the many Christmas tree farms in the Pleasant Valley and pick out our perfect, usually little, fir tree. The process usually takes up most of the morning, since we need to make sure we get the right one and then like to chop it down ourselves. Afterwards we often head to a local diner to regain our strength before going home to set it up and decorate. It never quite feels like Christmas until the tree is up, my husband and the kids put up the lights outside and I start to bake while Christmas carols play on the television.
     Growing up in Connecticut, my mother was an avid baker, and would constantly be baking breads, cookies and other wonderful treats. But while she might make chocolate brownies or whole wheat sourdough bread regularly, we knew that the Vánočka was special because she only baked it once a year, for the Christmas morning meal. I remember when she first showed me how to braid the lengths of dough and lay the smaller braid on top of the larger one. I thought it was so cool how something so simple as bread could be made to look like a piece of art. And it always tasted even better than it looked, especially on a cold winter morning spent opening presents with loved ones.
     The Vánočka recipe is a family one that was passed down to my mother from her paternal Grandmother, my Great Grandmother. Her name was Aloisie Kardusicky Budil, (my namesake) and she was born in the former country of Czechoslovakia in 1899. When she was a young woman she fell in love with “the wrong boy” and was consequently sent to the United States by ship at the age of 23, betrothed to an American man she had never met. She arrived at Ellis Island in NYC on November 2, 1921, and never again saw her original family. She moved to East Hartford, CT, was married and shortly thereafter gave birth to my Grandfather, John Henry Budil. He was her only child and he was definitely a “mama’s boy” who never moved out of her house until he died in 2004. Consequently, my mother grew up with her Grandmother in the home and was therefore surrounded by Czech cooking and traditions throughout her young life.
     My mother used to tell me stories about my Great Grandmother (known to me as Old Granny) spending hours in their backyard garden, weeding through the vegetable plants. She even raised chickens that my mom considered pets, so when they had the unfortunate luck of ending up as Sunday dinner, my mom, who is now a vegetarian, had trouble eating them, much to my Great Grandma’s disapproval. When my mother was little, Old Granny taught her how to make the Vánočka and told her about its importance and history in Czech culture. It is said that when someone is baking Vánočka, you are supposed to think of someone dear to you and to jump up and down while the bread rises. Sometimes a coin would be baked inside of the loaf and whoever got the slice with the coin in it would have good luck and prosper during the following year. If you were unlucky enough to burn or somehow rip the bread, bad luck would ensue, and of course, the first slice of bread must always be served to the “head of the household.” 
     Unfortunately I was only three years old when my Old Granny passed away so I don’t have very many memories of her apart from photos and stories I have been told. I do of course have memories of my mom and my Grandpa carrying on her traditions and cooking her favorite Czech recipes. My mom would always bake the Vánočka, and whatever my dad, brother and I didn’t eat that morning at our home, we would bring to my Grandparents’ house in the afternoon to share with the rest of the family. As all the cousins got older and there were more mouths to feed my mom would bake two loaves, one for us and one for my Grandparents’ house, so that they would have some left over afterwards as well. It was definitely the showpiece of the table. 
     As I grew older and moved away from home, I always looked forward to going back to my parents’ house at Christmas. Everything was so predictable, no matter what else in life was going on. I knew there would be Christmas cookies, Christmas carol music out on the piano for me to play, and of course, the Vánočka. However, my husband is from Winnipeg, Manitoba, so once our son was born in 2004, it became obvious that our Christmas mornings with my parents were not always going to happen. I was perfectly fine with alternating where we went each year, but I knew that it was now going to be my turn to carry on this tradition. I remember mentioning it to my mother in law over the phone a few years back when we were planning to come for ten days at Christmas time. She thoughtfully always asks me to make a list of any items I might need around the house to make my trip more comfortable, especially groceries I might like. So I sent her the recipe for the Vánočka and explained how I would really like to make it for our Christmas breakfast. She later told me that she spent a long time searching stores in her area for the right kinds of almonds, and the spice, mace. Nothing terribly difficult to find, but not always something you have in your pantry. But when I arrived a few days later, everything I needed was all laid out for me. That year was the first time I had attempted to make the bread myself and I made no promises as to how it would turn out. Of course it was perfect and my husband’s whole family loved it. We even discovered that it makes amazing French toast the next day, so now we try to be careful that there are always leftovers, which is actually pretty hard.
     Upon returning home after that first successful attempt, I knew that I had to incorporate this tradition into my children’s lives. In 2008 we moved to Kresgeville, PA, into our first house, and have since come to think of the Poconos as our home. My daughter was born here, my son started school here, and I now consider Pennsylvania more of my home than the house in which I spent the first 21 years of my life. I have definitely taken after my mother when it comes to my love for baking and I am constantly in my kitchen testing out new recipes and inventing new twists on old favorites. I even tried a few different versions of Vánočka using whole wheat flour, cranberries and walnuts. It is fun to see the look on my kids’ faces when I take the finished product out of our oven. It is definitely an impressive loaf of bread. I have begun baking it during the holidays here in Pennsylvania as well for school diversity celebrations and to share with many of my amazing new friends whom I have met since moving to the Pleasant Valley.
     Last year I made it for my daughter’s preschool international foods night and she was very excited to watch the process. She was still a bit too little to carefully handle the delicate dough but watched on as I used to do with my mom. I am hoping that this year both of my kids can help me make the Vánočka since they certainly enjoy eating it and I want to make sure that someday their kids get to enjoy it as well.
     As I mentioned above, my Great Grandmother never saw her parents or her brothers and sisters again after moving to the United States. But that doesn’t mean that the family lost touch with one another. My grandfather and my mother made sure that the family remained as close as we could while being separated by an ocean, long before there was such a thing as the internet. When I was eight years old, I had a school pen pal assignment and my mom suggested that we get in touch with my 3rd cousin Veronika, who was about the same age as me. Veronika would have been nine at the time and was studying English in school. So with the help of her teacher, we began writing letters to one another. Soon afterwards we would send cassette tapes of each other talking so we could hear each other’s voices. In 2003, when I was 23 years old, Veronika and her husband came to the United States for a 3 week visit, and used my family and our extended friends and family as tour guides and lodging. I was living in NYC at the time and my husband lent her his bedroom in his apartment and we all got to spend a few days together. It was definitely an amazing opportunity to get to meet her after all those years writing letters. Now thanks to modern technology and social media we are in touch almost daily and have enjoyed watching each other’s families grow. And every time I bake Vánočka, I think of her, as tradition states I should, and usually send her a picture as soon as it is done.
     Because my parents and extended family live in Connecticut and my husband’s family is all in Canada, we have yet to have an actual Christmas morning here in Pennsylvania, although I am sure as the kids get older, it is bound to happen eventually. Regardless of where we are, it is now expected by the entire extended family that Vánočka will be part of the Christmas morning menu. It feels amazing to be able to share this tradition with my little family who will hopefully grow up knowing that no matter where they wake up on Christmas morning, whether in the Connecticut River Valley, the frozen plains of Manitoba or the beautiful hills of Pennsylvania that we now call home, mom (or Grandma) will always make that sweet braided bread.

This Christmas morning's bread, December 25, 2013


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