Holiday Spirit

Ring in the holidays with an epic Christmas cake
Where to find Germany's famed Dresden Stollen along the Midpeninsula

by Anna Medina

Stollen. Dresden Christollen. Strutzel. Striezel. Stutenbrot. It may go by many names, but this oblong bread-like cake — dusted in a thin blanket of powdered sugar, dotted inside with colorful nuts, raisins, currants and candied orange and lemon peels — is one of the quintessential German Christmas desserts of the season. When baked, it gives off the heady aroma of cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, cloves, brandy and butter — a distinctive scent that, for many, officially declares the start of the Christmas season.

Not surprisingly, this annual German tradition has found its way into bakeries and markets up and down the Midpeninsula.

At Esther's German Bakery in Los Altos, making traditional stollen from a secret recipe smuggled out of Germany has been a longtime holiday custom that brings customers from near and far.

For years, master baker Ernst Ruckaberle churned out Esther's famous stollen using a recipe he discovered as a teenager while working at a bakery in Germany.

Ruckaberle took special note when they were making stollen at the shop. He allegedly wrote down the recipe on the sole of his shoe when no one was looking, eventually bringing it with him to the United States, where his cake quickly garnered a notable reputation.

According to those interviewed in this story, there are as many variations of the fruitcake as there are people who make it. Some recipes use cherry brandy, others use rum. Some cakes substitute apricots for cranberries and vanilla extract for crushed vanilla beans. And in Dresden, Germany — where the dessert has its roots — the stollen that kicks off holiday festivities can stretch as long as 27 feet and weigh as much as 9,400 pounds.

No matter which recipe one follows, making traditional stollen can be an arduous process.

"Us bakers, we're very proprietary," said Darius Williams, who will be making the dessert during his first holiday season working as a master baker at Esther's this year after taking over for Ruckaberle, who recently retired — and opted to keep his stollen recipe a secret.

What's the fascination with Stollen?

Celebrating Christmas with a loaf of stollen is a German tradition that stretches back hundreds of years. It's no wonder that there are as many versions of this bread-like cake as there are people who make it. Even the Roman Catholic Church and German royalty have influenced the recipe and size of this holiday dessert, which today is eaten at family gatherings, given as gifts and paraded around the streets of Dresden in a cart pulled by a team of horses to officially kick off the town's Christmas season.

The tradition started in 1730 when Augustus II ordered the Bakers' Guild of Dresden to make a stollen large enough to feed every guest at one of his festivities. The guest list? 24,000. An oversized oven was built; an oversized knife was designed; and 3,600 eggs, 326 churns of milk and 20 hundred weights of flour later, a stollen weighing 1.8 tons was produced. This tradition continues today.

Every year, an independent council commissioned by the Stollen Association conducts an 18-day-long testing period during which the jury evaluates stollen made by more than 120 bakeries and pastry shops. Only stollen that garners a specific number of points is granted a quality seal and is allowed to be sold as Dresdner Christstollen.

— Anna Medina

With a background in food science, Williams said he is up for the challenge of continuing Esther's famed stollen tradition.

"Stollen will be the No. 1 item we focus on this year," he said, explaining how his cake's raisins are soaked in rum for at least 24 hours and that the dough contains dried fruits, such as oranges and lemons, and marzipan or almond mill. Williams described the end result as a dough that's reminiscent of brioche, but less sweet and eggy. It contains more butter than eggs and sugar.

Williams said that, for some, the cake also has a symbolic meaning: The coat of powdered sugar is thought to represent baby Jesus' swaddling linen, a reminder of the Advent season. Wrapped in a festive cellophane paper, Williams said people tend to give the cake as a gift during the holidays.

Jan Sweyer, owner of Woodside Bakery & Cafe in Menlo Park, said that her European-style bakery sells upwards of 600 loaves of stollen every holiday season. The cake is sold at the bakery, special ordered or purchased from the bakery's booth at the annual holiday market held at the historic Filoli estate in Woodside, Sweyer said.

Sweyer said the bakery starts curing the fruit used in its stollen cake at least a month in advance and that all of the loaves are made from scratch, producing what she describes as an "artisan-looking loaf."

For those looking to sample stollen straight from the original source — Dresden, Germany — they can make their way to the annual German Holiday Market in Mountain View, a volunteer-driven event organized by the German International School of Silicon Valley (GISSV) that's scheduled to take place at 500 Castro St. on Saturday, Dec. 14.

Cornelia Bohle-Neubrand, President of the Board of Directors at the GISSV, said the market has a Kaffee and Kuchen (coffee and cake) booth that sells official Dresden Stollen imported from Germany.

Bohle-Neubrand, who grew up in Germany as a farmer's daughter, said the dessert's fruits and nuts are seasonal ingredients only available in wintertime in Germany.

"The ingredients evoke the feeling of Christmas — the orange peel, lemon peel, almond, nuts, cinnamon, rum, vanilla. There's a whole set of taste, aroma, perfume that just tastes like Christmas for Germans," Bohle-Neubrand explained.

Lisa Toppel, an exchange student from Dresden who is attending GISSV, said that ever since the reunification of Germany, her uncle, who had fled the socialist regime of the German Democratic Republic via Hungary to live in West Germany, now annually travels back to his hometown of Dresden during the Advent season to purchase the town's famous Christstollen. He fills his trunk with as much stollen as will fit, bringing it home to his family and friends in the western part of Germany.

"We in our family have — traditionally — the first stollen at the first of Advent," Toppel said. "We have stollen together and drink tea and hot chocolate."

Bohle-Neubrand said that the taste of stollen stirs up fond memories.

"Stollen gives us this warm feeling of home, family," she said.

Freelance writer Anna Medina can be emailed at

Where to find stollen

Esther's German Bakery
987 N. San Antonio Road, Los Altos |
Traditional stollen, baked fresh daily.
Available for pick up, special order and at various grocery stores, farmers markets.

German Holiday Market
11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 14, 500 Castro St., Mountain View
Dresden Stollen, imported from Germany.
Available at the Kaffee and Kuchen booth

Artisan Market, Holidays at Filoli
Nov. 23 - 24 & Nov. 29 - Dec. 1, 86 Canada Road, Woodside |
Traditional stollen made from scratch.
Available at Woodside Bakery & Cafe booth

Woodside Bakery & Cafe
325 Sharon Park Drive, Menlo Park |
Made in-house, from scratch daily.
Available for pick up, special order