The end of the year is a time of excess in the bread world. Bakers who spent 11 months tending their levains and sourcing locally-grown, organic rye flour suddenly pull out the white flour, sugar, booze, butter, and more sugar. For a bread journalist, the rain of stollen can be a little intimidating, not to mention filling. Luckily, the city's bakers are an inventive bunch, so this year's crop of holiday breads offers incredible variety, both sweet and savory.
For a serious, hold-nothing-back stollen, I would head straight to Hot Bread Kitchen's Stollen. This is a classic dense and rich loaf stuffed with all the flavors of the holidays. Dusted with a baker's concoction called snow sugar on top, the loaf encloses a long vein of almond paste. Around it you find almonds, raisins, dried cherries, and candied orange and lemon peel. The crumb is further flavored with rum, brandy, vanilla, ginger, cloves, cardamom, and nutmeg. Wash it down with eggnog and be ready for a long holiday nap.
For a lighter take on the specialty, head to Smith Street for Bien Cuit's Stollen ($11). It's made from a milk-based pre-ferment and a biga starter for a slightly lighter and more aromatic crumb. Into this the bakers mix candied orange peel, orange blossom water, and slivered almonds. The snow effect on top comes from a dusting of confectioner's sugar. The result is a not-too-heavy loaf with a delicate crumb and a light but fragrant orange flavor.
Bien Cuit is also offering an excellent Cherry Pan Dolce ($7), which comes out of the oven looking like the skeleton of some prehistoric amphipod. The loaf is made from a cross between croissant and danish dough, giving it a soft, rich, and slightly crispy texture. It's scored heavily across the top; between the ribs you can see filling of sweet cherries and rum-soaked black currants.
One of the city's most talented bakers, Runner & Stone's Peter Endriss has a particular knack for German specialties. I've already profiled his dense and fruity Hutzelbrot. I'm also enjoying his Fig Anise Bread ($5), a blend of Farmer Ground whole wheat flour and white flour poolish starter with a touch of honey, soft chunks of dried figs and anise seed for perfume.
On one of his trips to Germany, Peter brought back a set of wooden cookie molds. He uses them to make his delicious, not too sweet Springerle ($8 for six), a traditional German cookie. These are made with an egg-white heavy batter speckled with anise seed. They are chewy, a bit like a meringue, when fresh from the oven. I prefer to let mine age a few days until they're crisp.
The always-creative bakers at SCRATCHbread love to blur the boundaries between savory and sweet. Case in point is the SCRATCH Butternut Coffeecake with Toasted Hazelnut Butter ($3). We aren't talking Sara Lee here. This is a little loaf with a lot going on. It's built on a brown rice crust, with the body made of focaccia and roast butternut squash soaked in a light custard. The top is a layer of hazelnut streusel that has been drizzled with hazelnut butter. It's sweet, but only a bit, so it could as easily be served as a rich side dish or a dessert.
Despite opening two new bakeries over the last few months, Maison Kayser has managed to prepare a lengthy menu of holiday breads and pastries. On the bread side, my favorite is the Beaujolais Walnut Bread ($4.50). As you might guess, this is made from Beaujolais Nouveau, which adds a touch of color and a faint but pleasant winey flavor to the crumb. For a stronger taste sensation, the Mushroom Bread ($4.50) is a little boule specked with reconstituted dried mushrooms (probably porcini). The mushroom soaking water also goes into dough, giving it an almost pungent aroma. Thinly sliced, it makes a croque monsieur for the gods.
Despite this year's unprecedented distance between Christmas and Hanukkah, I'm always happy to celebrate with Breads Bakery's Festive Challah ($18). A big braided turban of a loaf, it's baked with a little ceramic dish for honey or salt set in the top. The crust is coated in bands of seeds (sunflower, sesame, poppy, etc.), while inside you find an excellent water challah (i.e. no egg) crumb, not too fluffy and not too dense.
For a perfect bread accompaniment to your holiday feast, I recommend Breads Bakery's new Parmesan Chive Biscuit ($3 each). Head baker Uri Schecht is an Israeli of Danish descent but somehow manages to make a superlative Southern-style biscuit. It's big, soft with a delicate cheese and chive flavor. Once you start eating them, you can't stop.