Christopher Astraikis is only scratching the surface of his enormous holiday task. It's barely 8 a.m. a week after Thanksgiving, and already Astraikis, a head baker at Durham's Guglhupf Bakery Patisserie and Cafe, is facing down a few dozen mounds of flesh-colored dough, lumpy with assorted dried fruits. In a few hours these will be rolled into "stollen," a traditional Southern German sweet bread that has helped turn Guglhupf into a nationally recognized bakery—and which turns the kitchen into a madhouse.
To say Astraikis is up to his ellbogen—that's German for elbows—would be an understatement. He will make about 150 stollen today, on top of the 350 since the bakery started taking orders a week ago. There are about 3,000 more loaves of stollen to go—although he may need to make a few hundred more than that considering the treat's popularity. Indeed, just this morning someone ordered 70 stollen, which perplexed him.
"Somebody's got a big pile of money burning a hole in their pocket," Astraikis says. "It's probably corporate. I can't imagine somebody needing 70 of them."
But Astraikis, who has spent the last 11 years amid Guglhupf's basement-level maze of bread carts, ovens and assorted restaurant equipment, seems undeterred by his task. A massive mixer whirs behind him as a handful of other employees buzz past. Until Christmas Eve, he will spend every day in this kitchen making stollen and the bakery's other holiday treats.
"I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel a little pressure," Astraikis said. "You have to feel a little pressure to do anything good."
Like clockwork, the calls start coming in every year right after Halloween, when folks start turning their attention toward that annual event known as the Holiday Season.
"At the end of October, we get the first calls about the stollen and I say 'No,'" says the German-born owner Claudia Kemmet-Cooper, holding the "O" for emphasis as she shakes her head and widens her eyes. "It'll be there the day after Thanksgiving. We're gonna do holidays one month at a time ... They would eat it in the middle of summer if we let them."
A Southern German Christmas tradition dating back as far as the 14th century, stollen is made from a leavened sweet dough of milk, flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, almond paste, yeast and butter.
"Lots of butter," Askraikis says. "It winds up being about a third of butter. Really healthy, you know. But it's better than margarine."
About 15 minutes after tossing the initial ingredients into the mixer's huge bowl—which, yes, included 13 pounds of butter—Astraikis pours in 37 pounds of orange and lemon peel, golden raisins and slivered almonds that have soaked in white rum for as long as two days in a large rubber bin.
After the dough has been formed and covered with an onion cloth for about 30 minutes to allow the yeast to work its magic, Astraikis flattens it with a rolling pin and folds it in half, leaving a lip around the edge. After another 30 minutes of proofing, the stollen goes into the oven, where it bakes for about 40 minutes.
A final coating of clarified butter and granulated and powdered sugars on the stollen helps seal in the flavor with the intent that the holiday treat be given as a gift or savored all the way into the first few weeks of the new year. Sweet only on the outside, a freshly baked stollen is not a sugary treat like a pastry or cake; rather, on the inside it's a soft, lightly textured bread, the perfect accompaniment with coffee, which is how most Germans enjoy it, Kemmet-Cooper says.
The coating of sugar and fat allows the stollen to be shipped around the country and preserves it for a long time. Astraikis, who saays he's kept the treat for close to a year, recommends storing it in a cool, dark place if it isn't going to be eaten immediately.
Stollen is Kemmet-Cooper's obsession, her baby, though she relies on Astraikis to handle the day-to-day production. She has offered stollen since she opened Guglhupf on Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard in 1998. For all the attention afforded to the stollen, though, Kemmet-Cooper didn't even like it when she was growing up in Germany. The country's more commercial offerings tended to be too heavy on fruits and often were too wet. Guglhupf's stollen is a bit more stripped down, straddling that optimal balance of fruits, nuts and spices without overwhelming the taste buds.
"It's kind of like barbecue in North Carolina," Kemmet-Cooper says. "There can be so many different versions of it. You can start an argument about it ... Ours is a very clean product."
Much like Champagne originating in that region of France, a stollen cannot be properly referred to as a Dresdner Stollen unless it comes from Dresden, Germany, where it originated. The rest, like those from Guglhupf, are referred to as Dresden-style, though Astraikis, showing a streak of Durham pride, calls his "Durham-ish" as he scoops a batch out of the mixer.
The original stollen was made from water, flour and yeast because of restrictions established by the Catholic Church that forbade the use of butter and milk during Advent. Pope Innocent VIII lifted that restriction in the 17th century in return for additional taxes. The resulting recipe is the one that endures today.
"There's so much tradition behind it," Kemmet-Cooper says. "Every area (of Germany) has such specific specialties. So much of the culture is reflected in food and I think that's something that's always even incredibly fascinating to me."