Vánočka (braided Czech yeast bread made for Christmas) may be one of the least changed recipes in it’s 140 plus years in Texas. In fact, I found one recipe in the K.J.T. Centennial Cookbook of 1989 (included in both English and Czech) that states the recipe is over 100 years old (“Vanocka – Czech Christmas Twist” by Ella Orsak Evanicky, who wrote that she made the bread just like her mother, who died in 1949, did.) The vánočka I made this year looked exactly like that of a friend’s mother who immigrated from the Czech Republic with great knowledge of traditional baking and exactly like a picture in cookbook I bought in the Czech Republic called “Czech Cookery” by Slovart Publishing, 2000. Even the recipes I found in Czech-American cookbooks from Iowa mirror those I found in Texas Czech community cookbooks and the few English language Czech cookbooks I have. Interestingly the four cookbooks I have in Czech specifically from the Valašsko region of Moravia, from where so many Texas Czechs’ ancestors came, have no mention of the word vánočka, which makes me wonder about the bread's regional origins in the Czech Republic.
At the same time, like any dish transplanted to somewhere else, vánočka in Texas has its variations… some of them probably highly personal to whoever varied from the traditional recipe, and then repeated the variation so many times that the new version became “traditional” for the family that ate it. Of course, this is writ large how Czech food became Texas-Czech food and it may not be possible to trace the evolution directly.
Even within one cookbook (Victoria County Czech Heritage Society’s 1992 “A Collection of Family Recipes”, the 5 vanocka recipes included, though basically the same as far as core ingredients go – eggs, yeast, milk, fat, flour, sugar, salt, raisins, nuts – varied in seasonings and the way they shaped the loaf or loaves. Some people have abandoned the intricate braiding of the traditional recipe in favor of loaf pans or simple twists. One bizarre recipe even called for baking the bread in greased 1-pound tin cans.
Between all the recipes I’ve looked at, there are variations in the fat used (lard, butter, oil); in the spices (any combination of lemon or orange zest, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace); in the fruit (raisins or no, dark or light, candied fruit or no); in the nuts (the traditional almonds or the grow-in-your-Texas-backyard pecans; and in the addition of vanilla extract or no. Some recipes call for sprinkling almonds on the outside of the loaf and some don’t. An informal poll on Facebook of Texas Czechs that still made vánočka echoed the variations I mention above.
I found several recipes that call for icing the loaf with powdered sugar or heavy white icing, no doubt the traditional way of eating it for descendants of the women who first made the choice to be so sweetly extravagant. For those families, the vánočka must seem more like Christmas cake and on the flip side, my mother likes vánočka a couple of days old and drier because she likes to dip it in her hot coffee. My mother did not bake vánočka when I was growing up, but her mother did. My grandmother broke with tradition by including the candied fruit found at grocery stores during the holidays for fruit cake (candied cherries, pineapple, citron, lemon peel and orange peel.)
Below is the recipe I used this year for vánočka. I made two variations. I put the raisins in a bowl with ½ a cup of rum the night before to soak overnight (and drain them before adding to the dough – save the rum to add to your cup of coffee or eggnog!) And I braided the loaf traditionally, which is to use 4 “ropes” on the bottom layer, three for the middle, and two twisted together for the top layer. (See this fantastic video for how to braid a four-strand loaf for the bottom layer.) If the loaf starts to brown too quickly on top, loosely lay a sheet of aluminum foil over the top. I was very happy with the bread except that the top twist fell over while it was baking. Apparently one can insert toothpicks or skewers into the ends and center of the loaf to avoid this. Also, you can use the side of your hand to make a shallow depression down the center of each layer, in which the next braid will sit on top.
I read many comments from recipe writers or food article authors making a big deal about it making vánočka being a lot of work. It is and it isn’t. It does take hours between proofing the yeast and taking the baked bread out of the oven, but most of that time is the bread rising or baking, during which I’m doing other things (taking a shower, working on another dish). I made the vánočka the morning of Christmas Eve this year and it did not prevent me from doing other things (I know how to multitask.) Actually braiding the loaf takes time but that’s the FUN part. Anyone who loves baking can surely identify with that. And what a sense of accomplishment to see the raw ingredients through my handiwork and care, turn in to a gorgeous, golden, puff of deliciousness channeling my ancestors and connecting my family with their heritage. That’s not work, if you ask me, it's pleasure.
As Ella Orsak Evanicky wrote at the end of her recipe in the KJT cookbook, “This gives a lot of work but it is well worth it for it is something that lasts long and will not spoil easily. It is also good to put in the deep freeze, for when you take it out and let it thaw, it tastes so fresh. So I wish you all the luck with this Vanocka.”
by Agnes Houdek of Dallas
found in “The Melting Pot: Ethnic Cuisine in Texas,” published by The Institute of Texan Cultures, San Antonio, TX, 1977
2 yeast cakes
1 cup milk
2 teaspoons sugar
1 stick butter
½ cup sugar
½ teaspoon salt
2 egg yolks
5 cups flour
½ cup light raisins
½ cup blanched almonds, chopped
1 egg beaten
1 tablespoon milk
Crumble yeast into lukewarm milk (if dry yeast is used, dissolve in a small amount of milk first), add the 2 teaspoons sugar and let rise. Cream the butter, sugar, salt, and 2 eggs plus the 2 egg yolks. Add half of the flour and mix well. Add the yeast mixture and mix in the remainder of the flour. Mix well, then turn out on floured board and knead thoroughly until the dough is smooth. Place in a bowl and cover. Let rise in a warm place about 1 ½ hours or until double in bulk. Turn out on floured board again and knead, adding the raisins and almonds. Divide the dough into 6 even parts. Roll each piece into a 15 inch rope. Place 3 ropes on a well-greased baking sheet, sealing together at one end. Braid the ropes and the seal the other end. Twist together two of the remaining ropes and place on top of braid. Finally, twist the remaining rope and place on top of the two. Let rise again for about an hour, then brush the dough lightly with a mixture of beaten egg and milk. Bake at 350 degree for 45 minutes.
Leftover vánočka makes fantastic French Toast (and a turkey and havarti sandwich, pictured above.) Below is a recipe based on the French Toast recipe in The Martha Stewart Living Cookbook.
Vánočka French Toast
Slice 4 slices from the vánočka, each about 3/4 “ thick. Beat a couple of eggs with about 1/3 cup milk, a pinch of salt, a tablespoon of sugar and any of these things that strike your fancy… cinnamon, nutmeg, orange or lemon zest, a little rum. Pour the egg mixture into a shallow dish that will allow you to lay flat your slices of bread. Soak the slices a couple of minutes on each side. Meanwhile, heat butter in a pan over medium heat. Cook the coated bread slices 2 to 3 minutes per side until they’re golden brown. Serve with butter, syrup, jam or jelly, honey, powdered sugar or however you like them.