Many Europeans countries share the tradition of preparing a kind of sweet bread, often with dried fruits, for religious holidays. Germany has Stollen and Italy eats panettone, while Russia makes kulich and Poland and Ukraine bake babka. In Czech Republic (and Slovakia), there’s vánočka, a rich plaited bread served for Christmas.
The Vánočka has a long history and is still popular today. The first reference to a Vánočka was in the 16th century, and over the years it has gone through many small transformations.
Today in some places in the Czech Republic today it can be found under a wide variety of names: pletenice, pletanka, stědrovice, stricka, strucla, zemle, and ceplik. At one time, a Vánočka could only be made by a baker who was a guild craftsman.
A classic Vanocka must be knitted from three progressively smaller braids, stacked on top of each other. That shape supposed to be interpreted as a rough sculpture of the baby Jesus wrapped in cloth and lying in a manger. It is, therefore, a symbol of new life and fertility.
There are different recipes and styles. Just note that it usually means a late night as this has to be baked, taken out of the oven and then left covered with a cloth until it’s eaten for breakfast.
- 1/2 cup butter
- 1 cup sugar (or less, to taste)
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup milk
- 2 packages active dry yeast
- 1/4 cup water (warm)
- 2 large eggs (room-temperature and beaten)
- 5 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup raisins (golden or dark)
- 1/2 cup almonds (blanched and sliced)
- 1/3 cup citron (chopped)
For the Topping
- 1 large egg (room-temperature and beaten)
- 2 tablespoons almonds (blanched and sliced)
STEPS TO MAKE IT
Gather the ingredients.
Add butter, sugar, and salt to scalded milk. Stir to combine and let cool to lukewarm.
Place yeast and warm water in the bowl of a stand mixer and, with the paddle attachment, stir until dissolved. Add lukewarm milk mixture and eggs and combine.
Add 3 cups of the flour and beat with the paddle until smooth. Add the raisins, almonds, citron, and remaining flour and mix, 3 to 5 minutes until smooth. The dough will be sticky.
Place dough in greased bowl. Turn over and cover with plastic wrap and let rise until double, about 1 hour. See this quick tip for faster rising.
Punch down dough and turn out onto a lightly floured board.
Divide the dough into 3 large pieces and 5 smaller ones.
Roll each piece into a rope, about 14 inches long.
On a parchment-lined baking sheet, braid the 3 larger pieces loosely and pinch ends together.
Braid 3 of the smaller rolls, pinch ends together, and place on top of the large braid.
Twist the last 2 rolls together and place on top of the second braid, tucking ends under large braid.
Cover with a cloth or greased plastic wrap and let rise 1 to 1 1/2 hours in a warm place.
Heat oven to 400 F. Brush the loaf with the egg and sprinkle with almonds. Bake 15 minutes, reduce heat to 375 F and bake 30 to 45 minutes or until instant-read temperature registers 190 F.
Let cool completely before slicing. Dust with confectioner’s sugar before cutting, if desired.