Vánočka is a traditional sweet bread from the Czech Republic. This buttery dessert is usually served for Christmas Eve breakfast along with a cup of Czech hot cocoa. A slice of vánočka sounds like an awesome breakfast to me!
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Fortunately, vánočka doesn't take any fancy ingredients. In fact, you may already have most of these already! Let's explore the purpose of each ingredient.
- Flour: Since the Czech flours hladka and polohruba aren't readily available in the US, I substituted a mixture of all-purpose flour and bread flour, which is most comparable. Use a 4:1 ratio by weight.
- Yeast: I prefer to use fast-action yeast (aka instant), as there is no need to bloom or activate the yeast in warm water and sugar as with active dry. If you do choose to use active dry, you'll need to dissolve the yeast and sugar in the warm milk mixture and let it stand until it's foamy, about 10 minutes.
- Salt: Fine table salt is best here. Coarse salts will not incorporate evenly, so avoid them here.
- Sugar: A touch of granulated sugar encourages the yeasts' growth and adds subtle sweetness. Feel free to substitute with your favorite sweetener if you prefer.
- Butter: Melted unsalted butter incorporates easily and adds a lot of richness, providing the soft yet flaky texture vánočka is well known for. Substitute with melted vegan butter if desired.
- Egg Yolks: The egg yolks make the dough yellow and add extra flavor and richness, as well as improving the texture of the loaf.
- Liquids: I use a combination of whole milk, heavy whipping cream, and water to hold the dough together. Make sure that none of the liquids are hotter than 115 F, or the heat may kill the yeast.
- Lemon Zest: This adds a bright hint of citrus. Try orange zest for something different.
- Raisins: This is traditionally the only fruit added to vánočka. If you're up for something different, feel free to swap the raisins for another dried fruit, such as currants, sultanas, dried cranberries, chopped prunes, or apricots.
The name is derived from the Czech name for Christmas: Vánoce. Interestingly enough, vánočka used to be called houska, but nowadays houska refers to an individual-sized braided bread sprinkled with poppy seeds or sesame seeds instead of a big sweet loaf.
The butter, egg yolks, milk, and cream make the dough soft. The large quantity of butter makes vánočka quite flaky, reminiscent of a croissant.
The three braids represent Baby Jesus in the manger, since it is a Christmas dessert. Each loaf of vánočka is made from nine strands of dough, braided into three separate braids. The bottom four strands represent the four key elements of earth: fire, water, earth, and air. The middle three strands stand for the three traits of humanity: reason, will, and feeling (emotion). The top two strands represent the two qualities that draw us closer to God: love and knowledge.
In the Czech Republic, bakers typically use 400g of hladka and 100g of polohruba to make vánočka. But what are hladka and polohruba? They're two types of Czech flour (called mouka in Czech), the ones most commonly used for Czech baking. Since we can't easily buy hladka or polohruba in the US, substitute all-purpose flour for the hladka, and bread flour for the polohruba.
Hladka is the finest-ground flour, most similar to all-purpose flour in the US. Polohruba is a semi-coarse flour with more gluten than hladka; more like bread flour. Hruba is a coarse flour often used for dumplings. Krupice is the coarsest flour; comparable to semolina.
The correct pronunciation is VAN-otch-kah.
Since vánočka is tricky to make, many customs have arisen to "help" the bakers make a perfect loaf. Although these customs won't guarantee a successful loaf, you might have fun trying some of them!
- The lady of the house was the only one who could make the vánočka. (Maybe she was the most experienced baker in the house!)
- She had to wear a white apron and not speak to anyone while she was baking. (She was concentrating.)
- She was supposed to jump up and down while the dough was rising to help it rise better. (It won't do much for the rising, but it will give you a workout.)
For some step-by-step help, I highly recommend watching this 36-minute video recipe from Kristýna Montano, the blogger behind Czech Cookbook.
How to Make
Start by measuring out the vánočka ingredients.
Place the two kinds of flour in a mixing bowl, then mix in the salt and yeast on opposite sides of the bowl.
Heat the milk and cream to 115 F, then add the egg yolks, melted butter, sugar, lemon zest, and raisins to the flour mixture.
Mix on low speed to blend the ingredients, then trickle in the warm milk mixture and enough water to bring the dough together. You may not need all the liquid.
Knead on medium-low speed until it passes the windowpane test, about 4 minutes. (See the recipe card for a description of the windowpane test.)
Let the dough prove in a warm place until it has doubled in size, about 1 ½ to 2 hours.
Divide the dough into nine pieces, then roll each one into a rope.
Twist the longest two strands together, then braid the three shortest ones together. Plait the remaining four strands into a four-strand braid. To do this, cross strand 4 over strand 3, and strand 2 over strand 1. Repeat until the whole loaf is braided.
Use the side of your hand to make a lengthwise dent along each braid, then brush them with egg wash and stack them on top of each other, placing the largest one on the bottom.
Let the vánočka rise until it is springy to the touch, about 1 hour. Brush it with egg wash, sprinkle with almonds, and bake at 350 F for about 35 minutes.
Allow the vánočka to cool completely, then dust with icing sugar. Slice and enjoy with a cup of hot cocoa!
- Vegan: Use melted vegan butter, almond milk, and coconut cream to replace the dairy products in vánočka. Swap the egg yolks for two flax eggs, and use this vegan egg wash as well.
- Fruit: Swap the raisins for another type of dried fruit, such as currants, sultanas, dried cranberries, chopped prunes, apricots, or dates.
- Nuts: Incorporate some nuts into the dough along with the fruit. Chopped almonds or walnuts would be particularly tasty.
- Let the dough rise in a warm place to speed up the prove. Place the vánočka in a cold oven, then place a casserole dish filled with boiling water on the shelf beneath. This will produce humidity and warmth to encourage the yeasts' growth.
- Braid the strands of dough tightly. A loose braid won't look as polished as a tight one.
- Insert a few wooden skewers into the braids if you're concerned that they might slip off each other as they rise and bake.
- Bake on a double cookie sheet to help keep the vánočka from burning. Stack the cookie sheet with the loaf on top of another cookie sheet. The layer of air between the two sheets will insulate the bottom of the loaf, helping to avoid a burnt base.
- The traditional way to see if the vánočka is baked is inserting a wooden skewer into a crease of the braid and poke it all the way to the bottom. The skewer should come out clean; if not, bake for another 5 minutes and check again.
Other Sweet Breads to Enjoy
- Challah Bread
- Pulla (Finnish cardamom bread)
- Kanellängd (Swedish cinnamon bread)
- King Cake
- Rosca de Reyes (Mexican three kings bread)
- Cinnamon Rolls
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Vánočka is a traditional Czech Christmas bread that’s made up of three beautiful braids. This recipe makes one delicious loaf that your family will love for Christmas breakfast. Serve it with a cup of hot cocoa and lots of butter!
For the Bread
- 3 ⅓ cups all-purpose flour or hladka (400g)
- ¾ cup bread flour or polohruba (100g)
- 3 teaspoons fast-action yeast (10g)
- 1 teaspoon salt (5g)
- 3 tablespoons granulated sugar (37g)
- 1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest
- ½ cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled (115g)
- 3 large egg yolks
- ½ cup raisins (75g)
- ½ cup whole milk (100 ml)
- ½ cup heavy whipping cream (100 ml)
- ½-⅔ cup filtered water, room temperature (118-142 ml)
- 1 large egg, beaten
- ¼ cup sliced or slivered almonds
- 1 tablespoon icing sugar
Making the Dough
- Heat Milk: Stir together the milk and cream in a small saucepan, and heat the mixture to 115 F.
- Flour & Yeast: Pour the two flours into the bowl of a stand mixer and add the salt and yeast on opposite sides of the bowl. Stir in the salt and yeast with your finger, making sure the salt doesn't directly touch the yeast, as it can kill the yeast.
- Add Enrichments: Add the sugar, lemon zest, melted butter, egg yolks, and raisins, then mix with the paddle attachment on low speed until blended.
- Form the Dough: Gradually trickle in the milk, keeping the mixer on low speed, then do the same with the water until a soft, sticky dough forms. You might not need all the liquid, or you could need a little extra, depending on the brand of flour and humidity.
- Knead: Switch to a hook and knead on medium-low speed until the dough passes the windowpane test, about 4 minutes. Do the windowpane test by breaking off a lump and stretching it until it is translucent without tearing.
- Prove #1: Shape it into a ball, cover it tightly with plastic wrap, and let it prove until it is almost doubled in size, about 1 ½-2 hours in a warm place.
- Prep: Line an 11x17-inch sheet pan with parchment paper.
- Divide: Turn out the dough onto a very large, lightly floured wooden cutting board. Divide it into two pieces, one about 60% of the dough, and the other 40%. Cut the larger piece into five equal pieces, and the smaller piece into four equal pieces. (A bench scraper is helpful for this.)
- Roll: Gently roll each piece into a rope.
- Group: Divide the ropes into 3 groups. Put the 2 longest strands in one group, and the 3 shortest ones in another. The remaining 4 strands are the third group.
- 4-Strand Braid: Place the group of 4 strands side by side and join them together at the top. Stick them to the work surface by pressing down firmly with your thumb. Think of the strands of being numbered from 1 through 4, from left to right. Bring 4 over 3, then bring 2 over 1. Cross the new strand 2 over strand 3. Repeat this sequence until the whole loaf is braided.
- Make a Valley: Place the braid on the cookie sheet and use the side of your hand to create a valley lengthwise down the center of the braid. Brush the valley with beaten egg.
- 3-Strand Braid: Lay the group of 3 strands side by side and braid. Pinch the ends to seal, then make a valley down the middle as before. Place the new braid on top of the previous one, making sure it's centered. Brush the valley with beaten egg.
- 2-Strand Twist: Roll the two remaining strands so they're just a couple inches longer than the loaf, then twist them together tightly. Place the twist on top of the loaf, tucking the ends of the twist under the other two braids.
- Prove #2: Cover the sheet pan with a tea towel or plastic wrap and set aside to prove for 1 hour in a warm place. It's ready to bake when the dough slowly springs back when gently prodded with a fingertip.
- Preheat: About 10 minutes before the bread is done proving, preheat the oven to 350 F.
- Egg Wash: Gently brush the loaf with beaten egg. Stack the sheet pan with the bread on it on top of another sheet pan to help keep the bottom from burning.
- Bake: Bake in the middle of the oven for about 45-50 minutes. If the loaf is getting too dark, cover with aluminum foil. Bake the bread until it has an internal temperature of 190 F.
- Cool: Let the loaf cool completely on a wire rack, about 2 hours.
- Decorate: Dust with icing sugar from a sieve to look like snow.
- Serve: Serve the loaf sliced with lots of butter.
- Sticky dough? Add a little all-purpose flour, but make sure it is still tacky to the touch.
- Let the vánočka rise in a warm place to speed up the prove. Place it in a cold oven, then place a casserole dish filled with boiling water on the shelf beneath. This will produce humidity and warmth to encourage the yeasts' growth.
- Braid the strands tightly. A loose braid won't look as polished as a tight one.
- Insert a few wooden skewers into the braids if you're concerned that they might slip off each other as they rise and bake.
- The traditional way to check for doneness is inserting a wooden skewer into a crease of the braid and poking it all the way to the bottom. The skewer should come out clean; if not, bake for another 5 minutes and check again.
- Prep Time: 50 minutes
- Cook Time: 45 minutes
- Category: Dessert
- Method: Oven
- Cuisine: Czech
Keywords: vánočka, Czech, Christmas bread
This post was originally published on June 7, 2018.