December is the fat month for New York City's artisan bread bakers. For eleven months a year they prove how much they can do with the fewest number of ingredients, usually just flour, water, salt, and leavening. But in the weeks before Christmas and New Year, they throw restrictions aside and revel in every over-the-top ingredient they can find, including butter, eggs, sugar, candied fruit and nuts, liquor, and even (or should I say of course?) pork.
When my editor assigned me to sample these holiday goodies, I didn't quite think through the possible repercussions: sugar overload, heaviness around the feet, and a generalized feeling of lassitude. It was as if I'd been eating the Christmas feast for weeks, and it wasn't even the 25th yet. Yet I persevered, and among those sugar and nut covered mounds, I've managed to find some treats that will stand out on any holiday table.
I've divided the ten I've chosen into enriched and not-so-enriched. All the breads in the first category are made with the butter-sugar-eggs trinity, making them generally light and soft (or dense and heavy), sweet, and, yes, rich. Both the stollens, made by Bien Cuit and Silver Moon Bakery, were fairly traditional—fitting for a bread style that was invented in Germany over 500 years ago. Most panettones sold in this city are imported from Italy in those squat obelisk-shaped boxes that clutter up gourmet stores but never seem to get sold. The bread is originally from Milan, but ever since a baker figured out how to mass-produce panettone, the loaves have multiplied, popping up everywhere from the Italian Alps to Venezuela. I'd advise you to feed those imported loaves to the pigeons; the moist, fresh-baked panettone from Sullivan Street Bakery and Dean & DeLuca are far superior. For a distinctly New York take on the tradition, the Orwasher's Christmas Challah is a panettone made with oil, not butter—perfect for Chrismukkah.
The less-enriched loaves are more various. Dean & DeLuca's pear bread and Maison Kayser's chestnut bread would be equally good with a slab of brie or a smear of marmalade. Bien Cuit introduced a bitter chocolate bread that would be a perfect eye-opener with coffee after too much goose and champagne the night before. And our favorite Bed-Stuy bakery, SCRATCHbread, has invented a breadCUSTARD that would be equally good from Christmas breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert—a holiday homerun.
- Silver Moon Bakery's Sicilian Bread
- Bien Cuit's Stollen
- Silver Moon Bakery's Stollen
- Sullivan Street Bakery's Perfect Panettone
- Dean and DeLuca's Panettone
- Orwasher's Christmas Challah