I will greedily save space for seconds of Christmas pud, but Christmas cake leaves me cold. True, they are made from similar ingredients, but the way those ingredients are combined makes all the difference. I love the moist, sticky texture of a steamed pudding, but not, with the rare exception, the often dry, mealy crumb of the cake, and I'm no great fan of heavy white icing on marzipan. I'd far rather have a slice of one of the many continental, yeast-raised, sweetened breads. The Italian panettone, buttery and light, has long been a favourite - I love it toasted and buttered for breakfast, or dipped in tea or coffee at any time of day. German stollen, denser and sturdier, is definitely a tea-time cake, and the Swiss Birnbrot has a thin layer of dough wrapped around a juicy, dark centre of compacted fruit.

Again, ingredients are similar: sweet-yeast doughs generously enriched with butter, and embellished with dried fruit and candied peel. I recommend searching for whole pieces of classy candied peel and chopping them yourself.

With all of these breads, I get better results with fresh yeast, though dried yeast can be substituted (use half the weight). Enriched doughs always take longer to rise: don't attempt to rush them by overheating, which kills off the yeast.


I can't say homemade panettone is vastly superior to the bought version, but satisfaction from DIY is immeasurable. The secret of that light crumb lies in the repeated, increasingly lengthy, periods of rising - so start early. My recipe is an amalgam of two others: one by the American food writer Carol Field; the other in Anna Gosetti della Salda's bible of Italian cooking, Le Ricette Regionali Italiane.

Makes two 1lb (450g) panettone

Ingredients: 1oz (30g) fresh yeast

1lb 4oz (560g) plain flour, sifted

8oz (225g) strong white bread flour, sifted

6 egg yolks

2 whole eggs

8oz (225g) butter, softened

1/2 tbs natural vanilla essence

5oz (140g) caster sugar

6oz (170g) raisins

2oz (55g) candied peel; chopped,

finely grated zest of 2 oranges

1tsp salt

Glaze: 2tbs icing sugar

1tbs milk

Preparation: Cream half the yeast with 4fl oz (110ml) warm water and 1tbs sugar, then leave in a warm spot for about 10 minutes until frothing. Measure out 2 1/2 oz (70g) of the strong flour, and gradually whisk the yeast froth into it. Cover with a tea towel and leave in a warm place until doubled in bulk (1-1 1/2 hours).

When it is ready, cream the remaining yeast with another 4fl oz (110ml) warm water and 1tbs sugar, and leave in a warm spot for 10 minutes until frothing. Now, I'd advise using a processor as the going gets sticky. Mix remaining strong flour with 3oz (85g) plain flour. Beat in the original flour and yeast mixture, the new one, the rest of the sugar, and four of the egg yolks.

Work the mixture for 3 minutes, or 5 if beating by hand. Scrape into a clean bowl, cover with a tea-towel and leave in a warm place until doubled in bulk (this will probably take about 2-2 1/2 hours). Meanwhile, soak the raisins in warm water.

Back to that dough. Punch it down, then beat in the rest of the flour, the remaining eggs, the softened butter, the drained raisins and all the rest of the ingredients. Knead for at least 10 minutes. Divide into 2 balls. Line the base of two 8in (20cm) wide, 2 1/2 -3in (6 1/2 - 7 1/2 cm) deep cake tins with non-stick baking parchment, and place a ball of dough in each. Dust the tops with flour, then cover loosely with a clean tea-towel, and leave at room temperature (but away from draughts) until doubled in bulk (this time it will take at least 6 hours, probably nearer 8.) If need be, leave it overnight in the fridge, where it will rise slightly, though not dramatically, and let it finish proving next morning. By the time it is done, it should just be rising above the rim of the tins.

Bake at 200C/400F/Gas Mark 6 for 10 minutes, then reduce heat to 190C/375F/Gas Mark 5 and bake for a further 10 minutes. Reduce heat again to 180C/350F/Gas Mark 4 and give the panettone a final 20 minutes. To make the glaze, mix the icing sugar with the milk. Brush generously over the tops and return to the oven for a final 5 minutes. Cool for 3-4 minutes, then unmould and finish cooling on a cake rack.

Dresdner stollen

A good friend told me that her mother made the best stollen - some 40 of them every year, mostly as presents. Pip Koppel inherited the recipe from her mother, who assured her that it was the definitive Dresden stollen - as long as you left out the marzipan; that's an embellishment in another regional recipe, but one that many people love.

Makes 3 stollen

Ingredients: 2oz (55g) fresh yeast

1/4 pint (150ml) warm milk

1/4 pint (150ml) warm water

8 1/2 oz (225g) caster sugar

1/4 tsp salt

2lbs (900g) strong white bread flour

8oz (225g) butter, melted and cooled until tepid

8oz (225g) mixed dried fruit - currants, sultanas and raisins

2oz (55g) chopped candied peel

4oz (110g) ground almonds

4oz (110g) flaked almonds

finely grated zest 1 lemon

1/4 tsp ground cardamom (optional)

2tbs rum (optional)

12oz (340g) marzipan

To finish: 6oz (170g) butter, melted

lots of icing sugar

Preparation: Cream the yeast with the warm milk and water, 1tbs of the sugar and the salt. Leave in a warm place for about 10 minutes until frothing. Sift half the flour and make a well in the centre. Add the yeast mixture and mix to a soft dough. Knead for 5 minutes. Cover loosely with a clean tea-towel and leave in a warm place until doubled in bulk (30-60 minutes).

Beat in the butter, remaining flour and sugar, ground almonds, lemon zest, cardamom and rum if using. Knead for 5-10 minutes, working in the dried fruit, peel and flaked almonds. Divide into 3 portions. Roll each portion out to make an oval about 12in (30cm) in length and 7in (17.5cm) wide. Lift on to floured baking sheets. Divide the marzipan into 3 and roll each piece into a sausage, about 9in (22.5 cm) long. Lay slightly off centre, down the length of each oval of dough. Flip the long sides over to cover the marzipan entirely. Cover dough with a clean tea-towel and leave to prove in a warm place for 30-60 minutes until doubled in bulk.

Bake at 190C/375F/Gas Mark 5 for 45 minutes. As soon as the stollen come out of the oven, brush them very generously, several times with melted butter, allowing it to soak in each time. Dredge with icing sugar - about 2oz (55g) a piece - and keep going until the butter no longer soaks through. Leave to cool on racks. Wrap in clingfilm and store in airtight containers. They taste great on the day they are made, but improve with keeping.

Birnbrot (dried pear bread)

This is a speciality of the Graubunden in Switzerland, where it is sold to visitors throughout the year, though it is really a Christmas treat. Dried pears dominate the filling, their flavour softened by other fruits, spices, wine and kirsch or brandy.

Makes 2 loaves

Ingredients: 1 egg yolk, mixed with 1tbs of water to glaze

Dough: 1lb 2oz (500g) strong white bread flour

1/2 tbs salt

1/2 oz (15g) fresh yeast, crumbled

1tsp caster sugar

3oz (85g) butter

1/2 pint (290ml) milk

1 egg

Filling: 12oz (340g) dried pears, chopped

4oz (110g) prunes, pitted and chopped

2oz (55g) raisins

2oz (55g) sultanas

1 1/2 oz (45g) candied peel, chopped

finely grated zest 1/2 lemon

3 tbs brandy or kirsch

1/2 pint (290ml) red wine

generous pinch ground cloves

1/4 tsp each of ground nutmeg, coriander, cinnamon and aniseed

1oz (30g) blanched almonds, finely chopped

1oz (30g) pine kernels

3oz (85g) walnuts, finely chopped

Preparation: Soak all the dried fruit with the lemon zest, brandy (or kirsch) and wine overnight. Scrape into a saucepan, adding enough water to come about two- thirds of the way up the fruit. Bring to the boil and simmer, stirring occasionally until virtually all the liquid has evaporated, leaving a moist mush of fruit. Mash roughly and stir in the remaining filling ingredients. Leave to cool.

Sift the flour with the salt. Put butter into a pan with the milk and sugar, and warm over a gentle heat, stirring occasionally until butter has melted, without allowing it to boil. If necessary, let it cool until the mixture reaches blood temperature. To test roughly, stick your finger into the liquid: if you can hold it there for a slow count of 10 but no longer, the heat is about right. Stir in the yeast and leave for 5-10 minutes in a warm place, until foamy.

Gradually stir the eggs and the yeasted milk mixture into the flour, to give a soft but not sticky dough (you may not need quite all of it.) Knead for 10 minutes, then return to the bowl, sprinkle the surface with a little extra flour, cover with a cloth and leave in a warm place to rise until double its original bulk (about 1 1/2 -2 hours).

Punch the dough down, and knead for 5 minutes. Divide into two pieces. Take the first half and roll out to form a rectangle, about 10in (25cm) wide, and 12in (30cm) long. Turn, so that one of the long sides is nearest to you. Spread half the fruit mixture thickly over the dough, leaving a 1 1/2 -2in (4-5 cm) border all the way round. Brush the edges with egg glaze. Roll tightly to form a tubby sausage. Pinch the narrow ends together and tuck underneath the roll. Lift on to a floured baking tray, with the joins neatly tucked underneath and out of sight. Repeat with remaining dough and filling.

Prick the upper surface of both rolls, then leave in the fridge for 1 hour. Brush with egg glaze, and bake at 180C/350C/Gas Mark 4 for 30-35 minutes until browned. Cool on a wire rack. Once cool, the birnbrot can be wrapped in clingfilm and kept for up to 1 month.

(Photograph omitted)