Vánočka is a typical Czech pastry traditionally made at Christmas. It could be compared to the Spanish mona or the French brioche, although Vánočka is even better. It is rich in butter and eggs, lightly sweet and if you make it right, it smells and tastes fresh for two or three days (if it lasts that long). Together with all the Christmas sweets baked in almost every Czech home, this is a part of the Czech Christmas gluttony and one totally worth trying.
I consider one of the most important things the smell of the vánočka. It should not only smell sweet but also fresh. And it should stay fresh even if we don’t eat it the same day I bake it. Lemon peel is crucial for that, it also helps to bake it with water and the type of flour is kind of important, as well. So let me say a few words about the flour before I get to the recipe.
You can use all-purpose flour or cake flour for vánočka. None will be a mistake although I prefer using flour with high gluten content. You need to knead the dough very well to activate the gluten but the result is worth it.
It is equally important to stick to the ingredients and their amount. The resulting dough is a little sticky and easy to work with. If it’s too sticky, you need to knead it more, not to add flour. If you as much as put too much flour on your working table, the dough becomes dry, harder to roll into stripes and your vánočka will be drier.
Let’s do this then.
You will need:
- 500 g of flour
- 2 egg yolks + 1 to smear
- 1 egg white to smear
- 100 g of sugar
- 1/4 tsp of salt
- 42 g of fresh yeast (equals one cube in Czechia)
- 175 ml of milk + 5 tbsp
- fresh grated peel from 1 lemon
- 1 tbsp of vanilla extract
- 100 g butter at room temperature
- 50 g of almond slices
- optionally a handful of raisins and a handful of finely chopped nuts – I don’t put any of these but typically vánočka comes with the raisins
Let’s prepare the sourdough first. Slightly heat up 5 tablespoons of milk in a bowl, break the yeast into small pieces and put it in the milk together with a teaspoon of sugar. Cover the bowl with a rug and let it rest in a warm place until the sourdough rises.
In one bowl, combine the sourdough, soft butter, milk, 2 egg yolks and vanilla extract and mix well. In another bowl, combine the flour, salt and sugar and if you want, add also nuts and raisins. Pour the sourdough mixture into the flour mixture and start kneading. If you want to knead manually, count on having a little workout, it will take some time and I recommend you to use your bare hands in the end. Otherwise, you can work with a kitchen robot or another electric kneading machine. The final dough should be soft, united and just very slightly sticky.
Place the dough in a bowl, cover it with a rug and let it rise in a warm place. The rising time depends on the temperature but the dough should at least double its volume.
From now on you’ll be working on a silicone mat or a table which you sprinkle with flour – but only very little, the dough should stay sticky. Place all the dough on the working table and divide it into 8 equal parts. Put 4 of them aside.
Roll out the other four and connect them on one end. You will be braiding there.
Start with the rightmost or the leftmost stripe and braid it alternatively over and under the stripes next to it. So first it goes over the next stripe.
Then under the next stripe.
And finally over the last stripe.
Continue with another stripe on the same side where you started and again – over, under, over.
Continue until you have the braid done, connect the ends. I usually go back to the other side, open the ends and tighten the braid on that side. Place the braid on a tray with a baking sheet and smear it with egg white.
Take another 3 dough parts, roll them out and this time make a braid from 3 stripes.
Place this bride on top of the first one and press it a bit to sit better. Smear it with the egg white.
Take the last piece of dough, divide it in two, roll out and make a spiral.
Place the spiral on top of the braids, press it into them and smear with some egg yolk.
Sprinkle with almond slices.
Preheat the oven on 170°C (338 °F) and bake for 15 minutes.
After that your Vánočka will be nicely brown.
Cover it with tin foil, place a bowl with water on the bottom of your oven, lower the temperature to 150 °C (302 °F) and bake for another 10 minutes.
Take your Vánočku out of the oven, take off the foil and you can serve the pastry hot or cold, with butter or jam…but it’s delicious also without anything or dipped in tea, cocoa or coffee.