Magic bread with tradition: The Tyrolean Zelten
Winter in the mountains is a magical time. Deep snow-covered valleys and long nights by the crackling fireplace. Then stories are shared, full of miracles, of devilish creatures punishing sinners and saints rewarding the good. Some of these stories are fictional, others bare a truthful core. Festive dishes accompany the ancient traditions, from grandma’s legendary Christmas cookies to the magical Tyrolean Zelten. A sweet fruit bread with nuts – rich, delicious and long-lasting. The historical production of the Zelten is often subject to regional family recipes (eg. Bozner Zelten or Lechtaler Zelten), which have been handed down from grandparents for generations. The Zelten are also gladly passed on – they are bestowed, shared and ultimately enjoyed together during the long winter season. With a particularly mild Zelten-butter or simply as a sweet snack in between.
Mysterious magic bread
In the rural areas of Tyrol the Zelten are usually baked on the 21st of December. On St. Thomas’ Day, the longest night of the year. Accompanied by all sorts of rampant superstitions, the popular pastries were given a particularly mysterious meaning around this night. Even the breadcrumbs of the Zelten are said to hold magical powers: They could not be disposed of carelessly, but were meticulously collected, fed to the animals in the stable or scattered in the fields.
There might be as many recipes as there are legends told about this Tyrolean tradition. Not even my own grandmother could tell how old the following recipe is – she learned it from her long passed Nana herself. At this point I want to share her delicious secret, even at the risk of being disinherited.Thus: The traditional Tyrolean pastry in four acts. And take some time, as the making requires about three days of preparation.
Ingedients for two to six Zelten
For the yeast-dough:
300 g rye flour (Type R960)
300 g wheat flour (Type W1600)
about 400ml of water
1 teaspoon of salt (about 10g)
a little honey
For the filling:
About one kilo of dried fruits
150g dried pears
150g dried plums
About 300 grams of nuts
200 g hazelnuts
150 g almonds
some almonds for decoration
1 stick of cinnamon bark
2-3 whole cloves
½ tablespoon anise
1 small pinch of salt
1 small tablespoon of cardamom
1 small tablespoon of ground ginger
1 pinch of pepper
1 pinch of ground coriander seeds
and about 200ml of liquids
150ml fruit juice (decoction of the dried pears)
3-4 shots of rum or fruit spirit (“Obstler”)
1-2 tablespoons honey
100g candid lemon and orange peel
1. act: The fruit filling
Two days before baking, the fruit filling is prepared. First the dried pears are boiled in 200 ml of water with the cinnamon bark and two to three cloves until soft. Then drain, let cool and keep the decoction. Cut the cooled and dried fruits (pears, plums, figs and dates) into coarse strips. Remove cloves and cinnamon bark from the decoction. Mix the cut fruits with the cooled decoction, about half a teaspoon of ground anise and the rum or fruit spirit. Finally, cover with a dry cloth and leave in a cool, dark place for two days. Stir from time to time.
2. act: The dough mantle
After two days it’s time to get the bread dough ready. Sift the flours and mix them with the salt in a bowl. Then crumble in the yeast, pour the water over it, add some honey and knead everything together vigorously until it forms a smooth dough. Cover with a dry cloth and leave it to rise in a quiet place without draught for 50-60 minutes until the volume has somewhat doubled.
3. act: The magical conjuring
While the dough is resting, work the nut mixture into the fruit filling. You may add some honey at this point, but the original sweetness of a traditional Tyrolean Zelten is comes solely from the various fruits in the filling.
After resting the dough gets a quick knead and is then divided. One half is worked into the filling, the other is used to form two to six flat patties, depending on the desired size. The filling is then portioned and placed on the patties, brushed with water and wrapped in a thin layer of dough. Position it on a baking tray with the seam facing down, pattern the dough mantle evenly with a wooden stick and garnish it with a few almonds. Cover with a dry cloth and let rest for another 25-30 minutes.
(Alternatively, the whole dough can be worked into the filling. Then uniform balls are formed from the mass and pressed to form flat round loaves of delicious fruit bread).
4. act: The fire gilding
After about half an hour of resting, the raw Zelten are brushed with water and baked in a preheated oven (do not use ventilation!) at 200°C on a medium rack until the decorative almonds have turned golden brown (grandma’s analogue timer). Portion baking guide: For 1kg portions use about 60 minutes, for 650 grams about 45 minutes and 350 grams about 35 minutes. After baking, brush the warm Zelten with water again and let them cool completely on a grid tray before tasting. The Zelten are to be cut and enjoyed with friends, family and winter stories.
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Pictures: Chris Weittenhiller