Real Bread Campaign

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Real Christmas Bread

Adapted by Campaign co-founder Andrew Whitley from recipes in his book Bread Matters

There isn’t really a tradition of Christmas breads in Britain. Our continental friends have stollen and panettone, but our festive baking centres on Christmas puddings and fruit cakes, mince pies and shortbread. Perhaps the nearest thing in these islands is Scottish black bun.

So this recipe may fill the gap. It uses an overnight sponge, partly to enable the yeast to build up vigour before being mixed with ingredients like sugar and egg that it cannot metabolise, partly to improve natural flavour and keeping quality and partly to ensure, as prolonged fermentation does so well, that the bread is not just delicious but digestible and nutritious too.

This recipe is enough to fit one large (2 lb/900 g) bread tin or two small (1 lb/450 g) ones.  (The dough is full of fruit and nut so it won’t expand as much as a plain loaf.) Alternatively the dough may be shaped as a cob or bloomer and baked freestanding on a tray.


Use the tastiest breadmaking flour you can find, preferably stoneground and not old. The egg and butter in the recipe help to produce good volume even with wholemeal.

Make the sponge and soak the fruit and nut mixture 12-24 hours before you want to make the Christmas bread dough.

175g     flour (see notes)
3g         dried yeast (or 5g of fresh)
125g     water (at about 25°C, i.e. not very warm)
303g     Total

Dissolve the yeast in the water. Mix in the flour until it is all moistened and the dough is reasonably smooth. No need to knead. Cover with a polythene bag or similar and leave to ferment at normal kitchen temperature.

Fruit and nut mix
100g    crystallised ginger
100g    raisins or sultanas
100g    dried cranberries
50g      dates
50g      figs
100g    nuts (brazils or almonds)
50g      rum, brandy, other spirit or fruit juice
550g    Total

If you can’t get hold of all these ingredients (or don’t like some of them) improvise with what you have to hand. Chop any large fruits or nuts into slightly smaller chunks, put everything into a strong polythene bag, tie its neck and swirl it around a bit so that the liquid comes into contact with all the dry ingredients. Do this a couple of times over the soaking period if possible.

Then, in the morning...
The Main Dough
300g     sponge (from above)
220g     flour (see note)
100g     butter (or margarine)
70g       raw cane sugar
100g     egg (e.g. 2 medium eggs)
550g     fruit and nut mix (from above)
1340g    Total
Add the flour, egg, sugar and butter to the sponge and mix until everything is combined well. Knead (or mix in a machine) for as long as it takes to develop a soft, silky dough in which the butter (or margarine) shows as a glossy sheen on the surface. This could take up to 20 minutes by hand, so take it slowly. If the dough feels stiff and unforgiving, add a little water as you go along. The end result should be a dough that is markedly softer than an ordinary bread dough.

Put the dough in a bowl, cover well and allow it to ferment. It will take some time for the yeast to start working again, so allow two hours in a fairly warm place. By this time, the dough should have increased in size considerably. If it hasn’t, leave it for longer. If it suits your schedule, you may at this point ‘knock it back’, i.e. press all the accumulated gas out of it and allow it another hour or two to rise again.

Using a light dusting of flour on work surfaces and hands, tip the dough out on to the table. Stretch it gently out into a rectangle about 25 cm (10”) x 20 cm (8”). Spread the soaked fruit and nut mix over almost all the surface. Roll the dough up carefully, turn it through 90 degrees and roll it gently up again, taking care not to force the fruit through the surface. The aim is even distribution, but it is better to leave the dough a bit lumpy than to work it so much that you end up with a mess.

Shape the loaf (divide into two if you are making small ones) and place either in a greased loaf tin or on to a baking tray lined with greaseproof or baking parchment. For an extra glossy crust, brush the visible surface with a little beaten egg.

Cover (without letting the covering touch the dough) and allow to rise until the dough, when pressed gently with a finger, feels delicate and unlikely to spring back very quickly.

Bake in a moderate oven (about 180°C/350°F) for about 30 minutes (a bit longer for a single large loaf), depending on your oven. The loaf will take colour on the surface on account of the sugar and butter in the dough, so make sure that it is baked through before removing it from the oven. This can be done by pressing the sides of the loaf just below the top to check that they are firm. Another way is to push a skewer into the loaf as you would to test a cake: it should come out clean. For the technically equipped, the temperature at the centre of the loaf should reach about 95°C by the time it is done.

Let your Real Christmas Bread cool before slicing. A light dusting of icing sugar will give it a festive flourish. Serve it with a cup of tea or coffee. It doesn’t need extra butter, but it’s best enjoyed with good company.

If everyone who makes or shares this loaf joins the Real Bread Campaign, we’ll be on our way to a new era in British bread – which would be something well worth celebrating.

© 2009 Andrew Whitley