Vanocka – The Czech Christmas Cake
Whatever you think a Czech Christmas cake would look like, I’m sure that it would not be what’s pictured below i.e. Vanocka (pronounced “var-notch-ka”) – a sweet braided Christmas bread which dates back to the 16th century. Here I’ll show you what it’s all about and our own personal recipe. There are many different looks and styles with an almost “”loaf of bread” consistency to something that you break off “buns” to a sliced cake littered with raisins and almonds.
It is made from flour, milk, eggs, yeast, butter, vanilla, raisins, almonds, sugar and salt. It might remind some people of the style of a French brioche. A classic Vanocka must be knitted from three progressively smaller braids, stacked on top of each other. That shape supposed to be interpreted as a rough sculpture of the baby Jesus wrapped in cloth and lying in a manger. It is therefore a symbol of new life and fertility.
In the traditional Vanocka there are NINE braids like pictured. The bottom four symbolize the four elements, namely fire (sun), water, earth and air. The middle three braids represent intellect, emotion and human will. The top two braids symbolise what leads a man most, i.e. knowledge and love. If you are making this for the first time then go for our version i.e. a 6 BRAID (4+2) so divide the dough 60%/40%. Cut into the required number of pieces and make the length about 50cm (you’ll find it may end up longer if you stretch the dough). Cut the end if you need to but in our case we make a wreath shape so it all fits in the oven.
There are different recipes and styles so the one described here is ours. Just note that it usually means a late night as this has to be baked, taken out of the oven and then left covered with a cloth until it’s eaten for breakfast. But as you’ll see the first part takes a while so you’ve got time for a Christmas drink and a film.
The Vanocka Christmas Wreath
Ingredients (Serves 10 for one sitting or 4 over three breakfasts):
- 500g all purpose flour
- 100g brown sugar
- 100g soft butter
- 2 egg yolks
- 1 teapoon dry yeast
- Quarter litre lukewarm milk
- 1 teaspoon of lemon rind
- 1 vanilla pod (inside part)
- Quarter teaspoon of salt
- 1 tablespoon rum
- 1 Nutmeg
- Candied fruits, raisins and almonds as required
- 1 egg (not part of the dough, used for glazing before baking)
Put all the ingredients, including the candied fruits, into the baking machine and set the program for dough with proofing (you can add additional decorative fruits and raisins later). Then you have approximately 1.5 hours for other things to do (like the drink and a film like I mentioned above).
When the dough is properly raised it has to be divided into the required parts i.e. we go for the 4+2 version with one half of the dough just a little bigger than the other. The bigger half is divided again into the four parts and braided into pigtails. The same is then done to the smaller part and braided into 2 parts.
Use a baking sheet, lay the bigger part down and form it in to a wreath. On top put the smaller pigtail (forming the top of the wreath) then put some baking sticks in to hold the two pieces together.
You can leave it for a while again to finish rising, and then before putting it in the oven, top it with the whipped egg and sprinkle with chopped almonds.
Bake slowly, approx. 30 minutes – 150ºC until nicely brown.
You probably wouldn’t win first place in any traditional Czech Christmas Vanocka championship with it, but we bake this every year the evening before Christmas and then start the Christmas time with slice of our Vanocka for breakfast, best with homemade cherry jam. You can learn about all the Czech Christmas traditions on the Christmas Markets Walking Tour.