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Holiday Breads: an Old Tradition

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I grew up in Seattle's Scandinavian neighborhood, Ballard. My grandmother married a Norwegian. So Christmastime was never complete without yulekake (julekaka) bread. Even today, though I no longer live in Ballard, I will travel many miles to get yulekake. Otherwise, it just wouldn't be Christmas.

Other than the spiritual aspect, the heart of a holiday usually centers around "breaking bread" with others. Bread, one of the most ancient foods, is found in almost every culture as a traditional item at celebrations. If you don't already include an ethnic bread in your holiday festivities, you may discover one you'd like to include from the list below.

Holiday Yeast Breads from Around the World:

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Stollen: This traditional bread originated in the German city of Dresden. Its oblong shape with a crease down the middle meant to represent a swaddled Christ Child (thus Christollen). The sweet dough is rich with candied fruits and when baked is rolled in confectioner's sugar.

Challah: This braided Jewish egg bread is eaten at many religious occasions including Hanukkah (Chanukah). It began in ancient times as a piece of dough set aside for the temple priests. Today the word challah is used to refer to the whole loaf. When baked it is glazed with egg yolk and can be topped with sesame seeds.

Julekake: This sweet bread is especially popular in Norway and Denmark. Traditionally it is spiced with cardamom filled with mixed candied fruits that give it the colors of the Christmas season. It can be lightly iced. I like it best toasted with butter.

Panettone: This Italian Christmas bread was created in Milan. You need a special pan to bake the traditional loaf which is round and tall (sort of like a mushroom) and baked with raisins.

Cesnica: A traditional Serbian wheat bread that is baked by women according to many rules on Christmas morning. The word "cest" means share. It is baked with an object inside and the loaf is sent counterclockwise around the Christmas table three times before eating.

Krendel: This Russian Christmas bread is shaped like a pretzel and either dusted with sugar or lightly iced. It is filled with fruit like prunes, apples, apricots, etc.

Kerststol: Dutch bread with almond paste and dried fruit.

Gubana: Originating in Slovenia/ North Italy (Friuli) this traditional bread is shaped like a snail shell and is eaten at various holidays throughout the year. It contains raisins soaked in grappa, pine nuts, grated chocolate, citron and more.

Beigli: A Hungarian bread that is rolled up with a filling of walnuts and/ or poppy seeds. When cut it provides a lovely spiral design.

Three Kings Bread: Also know as Twelfth Night Cake, this bread may be the oldest bread on the list. It was originally an Arab recipe, the Romans baked it, and it is traditional in Span, Portugal and Mexico (Rosca de Reyes). The bread is baked with citron and some object, like an almond, is included to symbolize the baby Jesus. Whoever gets that piece of bread is said to have good luck. Three Kings refers to the Three Wise Men. It is also known as King Cake and is eaten during Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

Fougasse: This is a flat bread (similar to focaccia) is associated with southern France. It is made with orange water, anise seed, olive oil and can be shaped like a leaf.

Christopsomo: A Christmas bread meaning "Christ's bread" and considered sacred in Greek Orthodox homes. Only the best ingredients are used and it is said to assure the well-being of a home for the next year. It can be decorated with dough to represent the family's life or shaped like a cross. It uses olive oil, oranges, pine nuts, raisins and walnuts.

These are some of the holiday breads that have been eaten for centuries. You might want to buy a loaf at a specialty bakery or make one to share this season. You may feel a connection that goes way beyond your own dinner table.

Check out some holiday bread recipes here:

If you find my short summary of breads and place of origin inexact, remember old recipes are often regional, recipes are altered, and the words cake and bread are often used interchangeably.

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