Vanocka (or huska) is a sweet Czech bread with golden raisins and almonds, traditionally made for Christmas. This beautifully braided loaf has a long history, and an important place in Czech culture. From the first written mention of vanocka in the 16th century, the recipe hasn't changed as much as the customs surrounding it have. The preparation of the Christmas loaf of vanocka was a very important event that would affect the fortunes of the family for the upcoming year. For example, if the vanocka wasn't ready by Christmas Eve, or if it was burned or torn, the family would have bad luck. The woman who made the bread traditionally wore a white apron and head kerchief, was not allowed to talk while baking (no distractions please!), and was supposed to jump up and down while the dough was rising.

Fortunately, although this is still a complex bread to make, the traditions surrounding its creation are simpler, and you don't necessarily have to wait for Christmas to enjoy it. (Think eggnog.) To be more traditional, bake your vanocka up on Christmas Eve, and serve slices of it to the household after Christmas Eve dinner. (If you want to be old school about it, you can even feed a slice to the livestock so they will be healthy and un-tormented by evil spirits in the coming year.) I'm including two recipes below: the first is Rose Wahl's Traditional Baking Champion recipe with the brand names edited out of the ingredient list. The second is a more general recipe.

Note: It's important to follow the recipe carefully! The amounts of spices and such are not as important, but the baking instructions should be followed closely, or you may have a whole lot of misshapen sweetbread dough on your hands.

Recipe #1

1/2 cup warm water
2 packages dry yeast
1 1/2 cups milk, scalded and cooled
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon ground mace
2 eggs, beaten
8 - 8 1/2 cups flour
1 cup butter
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 cup seedless golden raisins (soaked in warm water 5 minutes and drained)
1/2 cup chopped or slivered almonds
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon water

In a large bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water, let stand 5 minutes. Stir in cooled milk, sugar, salt, mace, eggs and 3 cups of the flour to make a batter. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, sift 5 cups flour. Add the butter and blend thoroughly with pastry blender or beater. Stir down the batter and add lemon zest, raisins and almonds.

Add batter to flour mixture. Gradually add enough of the remaining flour to form a soft dough. Knead until smooth and elastic, 10 to 12 minutes by hand or with a dough hook. Place in greased bowl, cover and let rise in a warm (85°F) place until double. Punch down; divide dough in half. Cover and let rest for 10 minutes.

For each loaf, divide each half into 10 pieces as follows:
4 larger pieces for the first, base braid;
4 pieces for second braid that should be a little smaller than those for the base braid;
2 pieces for the top twist that should be the smallest.

For the first braid: Roll the four largest pieces into 16-inch-long ropes, tapering the ends. Place the ropes parallel to each other on a lightly greased baking sheet. Braid from the center out to each end. Pinch ends together. Using the side of your hand, make an indention lengthwise down the center of the braid.

For the second braid: Roll the next four pieces into 16-inch-long ropes, tapering the ends. Loosely braid the 4 ropes, pinching the ends together. Place this braid on top of first one and make an indentation lengthwise down the center of the second braid.

For the top twist: Roll the remaining 2 smaller pieces into 16-inch-long ropes. Twist ropes together and place on top of second braid. Pinch all the ends together and tuck underneath the loaf. Fasten ends with toothpicks and three in top to help the loaf hold its shape while baking.

Shape remaining dough into a second loaf. Cover, let rise until double in size. Beat egg yolk with 1 tablespoon water, carefully brush over surface.
Bake in preheated 350F oven for 35 to 40 minutes or until cake tester comes out clean and braid is a golden brown. If top browns too quickly, tent with heavy foil.

Recipe #2

8 cups flour
3/4 cup (1/2 to 1 cup) sugar
1/2 lb butter
1/2 teaspoon mace
4 eggs
2 teaspoons salt
2 1/2 cups milk, scalded and cooled
2 packages dry yeast
3/4 cup ground candied orange peel, or 3 teaspoons lemon zest
1 cup dried currants or golden raisins Cut the butter into the flour until it is the texture of cornmeal, then make a well. Let the milk cool to body temperature and dissolve the yeast into it. Put this mixture in the well with all the remaining ingredients except, for the currants, and mix. Knead until smooth,then work in the currants.

Cover and let rise until doubled in bulk. Divide in half, and then cut each half into 4 large and 5 small pieces. Roll the 4 larger pieces into long rolls the length of baking sheet, and braid them together. Roll 3 of the small pieces and braid them together. Roll the remaining 2 pieces out, and twist them together. Stack the braid of 3 on the braid of 4, and then the twist of 2 on top of the braid of 3. Press the ends together and then under.

Let the loaf rise in a warm place until it is about doubled in size. Fasten then braids in place with toothpicks or skewers to prevent warping, and then bake at 350F for 10 minutes, then at 300F for about 40 minutes. Cool and drizzle with icing made of confectioners sugar mixed with milk before serving.

Sources :This is one of the few websites that not only is in English, but has pictures of the braiding process!

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