Introduction: Vanocka - Czech Christmas Pastry
Vanocka (correctly spelled Vánočka and pronounced Vanochka) is a Czech sweet pastry traditionally eaten on Christmas, however, it can be found in the stores all year round. The Czechs eat it as it is with tea or coffee or sometimes spread butter and jam on it.
I have to confess something. I have preferred store-bought Vanocka most of my life. Not even my grandma - an excellent baker - could make it so that stayed tasty few hours or even a day after it has been baked. It tasted great while it was hot but once it cooled down it was just...dry. I decided to find a solution. It took me some time but I've finally figured out a recipe to make it fluffy, sweet-smelling and moist even two days after (if it lasts that long).
So how about trying something new this Christmas and bringing a bit of the unique Czech culture to the table?
Here's what you'll need:
- 500 g / 17.6 oz of all-purpose flour (if you find flour with high gluten content, much better) + some to sprinkle on the working table
- 100 g / 3.5 oz of unsalted butter at room temperature (if you are a foreigner living in CZ, don't look for unsalted butter, just buy butter;)
- 100 g / 3.5 oz of sugar
- 1 tbsp of vanilla extract
- 175 ml / 6.2 fl oz of lukewarm milk + 5 tbsp of the same
- 1/4 tsp of salt
- 3 eggs separated in yolks and whites
- grated peel from 1 lemon
- 40 g / 1.4 oz of fresh yeast (in CZ that would be one cube)
- almond slices
- optional: raisins and chopped nuts
Step 1: A Few Tips
Vanocka, like all traditional Czech sweet pastry, is a real comfort food. It is rich and satisfying and that's why it requires time. It is not difficult to make, however, don't make it in hurry.
The ingredients are very important here. Don't use substitutes, using quality ingredients makes a big difference. Use flour with high gluten content, if you can find it, full-fat milk and real butter, vegetable fat is a big no-no here. Use real vanilla extract, no artificial aromas, and as for the yeast, it has to be fresh. No baking powder or baking soda.
Step 2: Preparing the Dough
First, you need to make the sourdough which will make your Vanocka fluffy and give it delicious scent. Put 5 tablespoons of the lukewarm milk in a bowl, break the yeast in small pieces and sprinkle them in the milk. Then add a tablespoon of sugar, cover the bowl with a cloth and leave the bowl in a warm place until you see that the yeast starts working (usually about 15 minutes, picture 1).
In another bowl mix flour, sugar, salt and lemon peel. Then add the sourdough, butter, vanilla extract, milk and two of the egg yolk. At this point you can add some chopped nuts and raisins if you want. Knead the dough until it is lightly sticky (picture 2). Cover the bowl again with the cloth and leave the dough double in volume in a warm place. When the dough has doubled in volume, take it out on the working table that you have previously sprinkled with some flour (picture 3).
Step 3: Let's Braid!
And now the creative part. Divide the dough in 8 equal parts (picture 1). Then take 4 of them, roll them out to strands and connect them at one end (pictures 2, 3).
Take the leftmost strand and braid it over the strand next to it, under the next one and over the last one (picture 4). Then take the new leftmost strand and braid it in the same way - over the strand next to it, under the next one and over the last one (picture 5). Keep braiding until you reach the ends, connect them by squeezing them together (picture 6). You will notice that the beginning of your braid is a bit loose, so braid it a little bit more to tighten it (picture 7).
Place the baking sheet on a flat tray, place the braid on it and smear it with the egg whites.
Step 4: Braiding On
Now takes 3 more parts of the dough, roll them out and connect like you did in the previous step (picture 1). Braid like you would braid a hair - take the leftmost strand and place it in between the other two strands. Then take the rightmost strand and place it between the other two. Keep braiding until the braid is finished. Connect the ends (picture 2). Take this braid and place it on top of the first braid (picture 3). Push it lightly with your palms to connect it a bit with the first braid. Smear the new braid with some egg white.
Step 5: And On...
Take the last part of the dough and split it in two. Roll them out to create strands again. Twist these strands around each other to create a spiral, this will be your last braid (picture 1). Place this spiral on top of the previous two, push it with your palms and smear the whole Vanocka with egg yolk. Then sprinkle it with almond slices (pictures 2 and 3).
Step 6: How to Bake It Golden and Moist
Preheat the oven on 170 ºC / 338 ºF, place a small bowl of water at the bottom of the oven. Place the tray in the oven and bake for 15 minutes. Then lower the temperature to 155 ºC / 311 ºF, cover the Vanocka with some aluminium foil and bake for 10 more minutes.
Step 7: A Je To!
A je to! - That's it! Now eat Vanocka hot or at room temperature, with butter, jam, chocolate cream or without anything just dipped in tea, coffee or hot chocolate.
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