Saturday, December 4, 2010

Welcome to my family tradition

For some families, Christmas smells like cinnamon, or peppermint, or cloves. Maybe your holiday is about fudge, or sugar cookies, or fruitcake. It might be German stollen, or Italian pannetone, or an English plum pudding.

In my family, Christmas smells like licorice.

To be precise, the smell of Christmas is anise cooked with dried fruit, in a dark bread, best served cold from my grandma's enclosed but uninsulated back porch, which served as a poor man's deep freeze during the Minnesota winters. Christmas, my friends, is bittebrot.

Technically, it should be birnebrot, as it is really Swiss pear bread. My great-grandmother's recipe has it spelled correctly. But I've never heard anyone say anything but "bitte" which I've always found appropriate, as bitte is kind of the German version of aloha or shalom, a word that might mean both please and thank you.

Sometime as we approached the holidays, Grandma would make up massive batches of bittebrot, and it would fill every pan she could find. Loaf pans, cake pans, pie plates, casseroles, free-form loaves on cookie sheets. You never knew what shape the bread might take.

Grandma Marie often lamented that hers didn't taste exactly like her mother-in-law's. Grandma Dehn Sr.'s would have a bread lighter in color, that rose higher. Grandma's was denser and deeper in flavor. Both were wonderful, but I always preferred Grandma Marie's.

Mine is somewhere in the middle...and something kind of different.

When I first stepped up to try my hand at our family tradition, it was the same way it had been made forever. Mixed by hand in a giant bowl with a wooden spoon. Kneaded by hand. Shaped by hand. And it was delicious. It was also hard and time consuming, and frankly, I'm a fan of quick and easy.

Enter the bread machine.

It took some trial and error. There were some failures. There were some spectacular failures. But ultimately, I succeeded in translating my grandma's big-batch bittebrot into a single loaf recipe that all but makes itself. (And Aunt Patty? I'm sorry it's taken this long to get the recipe to you.)

It starts with simmering apples, raisins, and other dried fruit into a juicy compote. Traditionally, it should be dried apples, dried pears, prunes, raisins, and maybe some apricot. I use what I've got. Today, for example, was fresh apple, raisin and dried cranberry.

Cover with apple cider and simmer for 30 minutes or more. Cool to about 100 degrees. (Don't break out a thermometer or anything. If it feels a little warmer than your skin, it's fine.) Measure out a cup and a half, and make sure the liquid, and not just the fruit, comes to the top of your measuring cup. If you don't have that much liquid, add enough warm water to make it up.

The secret, of course, is the anise. I double it up, putting a teaspoon of extract in the liquid, and adding another couple of teaspoons of ground anise (or crushed seed, but crushing anise seed is a tedious business that may also crush your soul) with the dry ingredients.

The rest is simple. Three cups of flour, a teaspoon of salt, and a package of yeast. (To be honest, I don't use a package of yeast. I buy my yeast in gigantic two-pound packages. I use about a tablespoon.)

Now, you may be asking yourself, why won't she just write this like a regular recipe? Well, I'll tell you. This recipe, since it's a tradition, isn't a formula. It's a story. You should learn it the way you would learn it from your grandmother, in explanatory steps.

And also...all bread machines are different. Some want the liquid first, like mine does. Some want the dry ingredients first. If you've got a liquids first, add the fruit and juice, with the anise extract, then top with flour, salt, ground anise, and yeast. I use my machine's sweet dough setting, like you would use for cinnamon raisin bread, with a light crust.

What you get is a loaf that is chewy but light, with the sweetness of fruit and the strength of anise. And Christmas just isn't Christmas without it.


  1. I wish I could pay you to come down here and help me have my house smell like yours!!!!

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