Stollen is a type of German bread which is closely associated with the holidays, and Christmas in particular. The bread is extremely sweet and rich, and resembles a cake much more than a bread. For this reason, some people refer to it as a fruitcake or variant on a Christmas cake. However, since Stollen is risen with yeast and handled like a bread, it should be classified as a bread.
A typical Stollen has a slightly mounded shape which is meant to vaguely suggest the figure of Christ in his swaddling clothes. It is usually frosted with a light dusting of powdered sugar, and some bakers add candied or cordialed cherries to the decorations as well. Inside, the Stollen is packed with chopped nuts, raisins, and candied orange peel. Other candied fruits may be included as well, and the cake is often baked with rum for a particularly rich flavor. Some bakers also add marzipan for more flavor and moisture in the finished product.
The origins of Stollen are quite old. The bread was first baked in the German city of Dresden in the 1500s, although in a very different form. Originally, the bread was made without butter and some other ingredients which were viewed as decadent during a traditional time of holiday fasting. With a relaxing of the fasting restrictions on devout Christians, the Stollen evolved from a sometimes hard and tasteless bread to the moist, soft, very flavorful version which is popular today.
The word is derived from the German stroczel, which originally meant “to awaken.” Over time, the term came to be used in the context of breads, probably because yeast is a living organism which awakens to create a bread dough. A different noun is used to refer to bread in Modern German, since Stollen is such a unique food. In some parts of Germany, the bread is also called Striezel, and during the holiday season it is sometimes better known as Weihnachtsstollen or Christstollen.
In Germany, Stollen is often given as a Christmas or holiday gift. The most popular version of Stollen is Dresdner Stollen, bread baked by traditional bakeries in Dresden. Dresden also celebrates an annual Stollen festival to commemorate the bread. Traditional bakeries specially mark their breads so that consumers know that the bread is made in the Dresden style. Stollen is also baked at home, and it can be made and consumed year round, not just during the holiday season.