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Christmas bread filled with raisins, almonds, and lemon peel

When Ladd Hursky and Esther osborne married in 1926, Esther had never heard of Vanochka, the Czechoslovakian Christmas bread. In fact Esther hardly considered breadmaking high on her list of accomplishments.

But all that was soon to change for Ladd was a young man who loved tradition. Particularly important were those Christmas customs he had brought with him when he immigrated to America from Czechoslovakia, and making the Vanochka was part of those pleasant memories.

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"We had so little, that we learned to appreciate even the smallest thing and the beautiful, braided, brown and shiny loaf became a symbol of the joys of my childhood Christmas."

So it is no wonder that in beginning a new life together, the making of Vanochka became a holiday ritual in the home of the Hurskys. Fortunately for Esther, her Midwestern background provided her with the fundamentals of baking with yeast, along with the love of a challenge.

The Hursky's recipe for this rich sweet bread dough contains raisins, mace, and lemon peel and is so good that it could be used as a basic sweet dough with a variety of fillings and different shapes for the dough.

Esther usaully makes up her dough in the morning, and though it isn't a difficult task she admits that it does take some time. She also suggests that you may want to make up the dough and freeze it for later use, or even bake the loaves and freeze these to have on hand for unexpected callers. Ladd doesn't go along with these methods, he likes his Vanochka freshly baked. Vanochka 3/4 cup milk, scalded 1/2 cup margarine 1/2 cup sugar 2 packages dry yeast 1/2 cup warm water, 110 to 115 degrees F. 5 cups flour 1 tablespoon vanilla 1 tablespoon grated lemon peel 1/4 teaspoon mace 1/4 cup candied fruit 1/2 cup blanched almonds, toasted and coarsely chopped 2 eggs 1/2 cup white raisins

Pour scalded milk over margarine, sugar and salt in a mixing bowl; se aside to cool to lukewarm. Sprinkle yeast over warm water and allow to stand about 5 to 10 minutes. Add 1 cup of the flour to milk mixture and beat until smooth, then stir in yeast and water and beat again.

Add about 1/2 of remaining flour, and beat until smooth. Add eggs, vanilla, lemon peel, and mace into batter. Blend in raisins, candied fruit, and almonds, and beat in enough of remaining flour to make a soft dough.

Turn dough onto lightly floured surface and allow to stand 5 to 10 minutes. Knead until smooth, then place in a greased bowl, oil top of dough and cover to let stand in a warm place, about 80 degrees F. until doubled in bulk.

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Punch dough down, turn dough over in bowl, cover, and allow to rise again. The dough is now ready for shaping.

The distinctive thing about Vanochka is the way it is braided. Ladd does his part, and his instructions are very exact.

Devide the dough into 8 equal parts and roll each portion into about a 15 -inch-long rope. Take 4 of those dough ropes and braid them together and place on top of the bottom braided loaf. Twist remaining dough rope and place on top of the others.

Secure these 3 layers for rising and baking by placing 3 or 4 thin bamboo skewers through the 3 layers at equal distance apart to keep from slipping as they rise.

Brush loaf with a mixture of beaten egg yolk and 1 teaspoon of water. Let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk. Check rising by touching the dough on the corner with your little finger. If the dent remains, it has risen enough to bake.

Bake at 350 degrees F. for 45 to 50 minutes or until golden brown. Cool and drizzle with a thin glaze of confectioner's sugar and milk, then top with almonds.

Slice at the table and serve with butter for a memorable Christmas breakfast. Should there be any left over it is a treat when warm and toasted.

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