Vánočka is a kind of sweet Christmas braided bread with raisins soaked in rum, generously sprinkled with chopped almonds. Everyone here in the Czech Republic knows: When homemade vánočka comes out of the oven, Christmas is on the doorstep!
What Is Vánočka
Vánočka is a traditional Czech sweet bread baked at Christmas. It is made from yeasted dough, braided into a long loaf shape.
This Christmas bread is supposed to look like Baby Jesus wrapped in a swaddling blanket, which is why it’s a symbol of a new life and fertility.
Vánočka tastes best sliced with butter and a little jam on Christmas morning. Add white coffee or cocoa, and you have the typical holiday breakfast!
If you’re an American with Czech roots, you may know vánočka as houska or hoska.
It’s because historically, vánočka was called houska. It was only later that this name started meaning a different kind of pastry.
These days, the name houska in the Czech republic means much smaller savory braided white bread, widely available in the Czech stores.
Take a look at what Czechs call houska currently.
Many Bohemians and Moravians migrated to the USA at the turn of 19. a 20. century, when the vánočka was still called houska. This name was carried over to the USA by Bohemian emigrants and used even by their descendants.
That’s the reason why modern Czechs call the Christmas bread vánočka, while the name houska might be more common in the USA.
FUN FACTS: Other names for vánočka used in certain Czech regions are calta, vandrovnice or štědrovnice.
The term štědrovnice comes from North Bohemia (Jizera and Giant Mountains), where I live with my family!
More Czech stuff to explore: What do Czechs eat at Christmas
Let’s move and get together all the necessary ingredients to bake vánočka!
You will need:
- All-purpose flour; gluten-rich
- Unsalted butter; melted and cooled
- Granulated sugar
- Bleached almonds; finely chopped
- Raisins; soaked in rum overnight
- Yeast; I use fresh yeast, but instant yeast will work as well
- Milk; lukewarm
- Eggs; for dough and egg wash
- Vanilla essence
- Lemon zest; freshly grated
Some proven Czech recipes call for pork lard instead of butter. I tried both variants, and each tastes just as good!
🍰 More Czech Christmas recipes:
- Linecké cukroví – Linzer cookies with jam
- Vanilkové rohlíčky – Czech favorite "vánoční cukroví"
- Včelí úly – Czech non-bake Christmas cookies with a hint of rum
Making the vánočka takes a lot of time, but the results is worth it.
Here is a quick summary of how to make vánočka from scratch. You will find more details further in the recipe card.
- In a large bowl, sift flour and add yeast, a little warm milk, and a sugar sprinkle. Mix yeast, warm milk, and flour in the middle, and let it rise for 30 minutes in the warm place.
- In a bowl, whisk an egg with the rest of the warm milk and melted butter. Add to the flour with yeast.
- Add salt, the rest of the sugar, vanilla essence, and lemon zest.
- Knead the vánočka dough thoroughly using a stand mixer or your hands. In the end, incorporate raisins soaked in rum and chopped almonds.
- Let the dough rise for a further 30 minutes.
- Divide the risen dough into 2 parts, make one bigger and one smaller braid and stack the smaller on the top of a bigger one.
- Stick 3 wooden skewers vertically into the vánočka; they will help keep the shape of vánočka better.
- Let the vánočka rise for another 1 hour.
- Brush the vánočka with egg wash, sprinkle with chopped almonds and bake it in preheated oven for 40-50 minutes.
- Cover the vánočka halfway through the baking time (when the surface gets gold) with a tin foil.
After finishing, take out the skewers and dust with powdered sugar.
Best Tips to Make Vánočka right
You need to knead the vánočka dough well.
If you only mashed the ingredients together, the gluten making the vánočka airy and fluffy wouldn’t develop, and the result would be a fallen and flat Christmas bread.
- Use your stand kitchen mixer with an appropriate hook and let it knead for at least 10 minutes.
- I knead yeasted dough only with my hands. It takes some time (about 15 minutes), but I can feel the dough in my fingers, and I recognize the moment pretty well when it’s well done.
- The vánočka dough contains fat (in the Czech Republic, we use unsalted butter or pork lard). There’s a rule of thumb that the more fat the dough contains, the worse it rises because it’s “heavier”.
- Vánočka rises twice. First as the dough, and the second time already braided. Add the time required to activate the yeast (30 minutes, see recipe description).
- While rising the vánočka, you have to make sure that its surface never dries out. I let the vánočka rise in a closed oven that is turned off with a small pot full of hot water at the bottom.
- I stick 3 wooden skewers into the vánočka to better hold its shape: in the middle and both ends.
The skewers are stuck into the vánočka once you braid it and let it rise for the second time. Skewers are taken out only after the vánočka is baked.
Why Is Vánočka Braided
Cross-braiding the vánočka has a meaning!
In the past, Czechs believed that braiding the vánočka protects people from rage and fury. Vánočka is braided so that the family goes peacefully and well next year.
From the baker's point of view, the braided vánočka has a better texture and is pretty soft and flaky.
Classical vánočka is made of 9 strands, but I don’t want to bother myself with this art of braiding.
I make vánočka from 6 strands (3+3 or even 3+2), base, and a top layer. Vánočka looks and tastes great without resorting to overly complicated braiding patterns.
If you want to braid the vánočka from different amounts strands, I highly recommend watching this video, where all the process is nicely shown: Cuketka Youtube
Don’t stress yourself if the Christmas bread doesn’t turn into the perfect shape. There's no "bad" vánočka. It all tastes good!
For those who’re curious how to pronounce vánočka correctly:
Vánočka is pronounced as: /ˈvaːnot͡ʃka/
I also recorded a short audio clip:
Vánočka is one of several Czechoslovak bread recipes. Czechs and Slovaks lived in one country (Czechoslovakia), which split in 1993 to form separate Czech and Slovak Republics.
We still have many common recipes with the Slovaks, like the sweet Christmas bread – in Slovakia, they call it „vianočka“.
The Easter bread in the Czech Republic is called mazanec.
Superstitions around Vánočka
Czechs have a lot of old superstitions, meant to help with making of the vánočka.
Here are three nice examples:
- The cook has to have a white apron and a white bonnet or scarf while making the vánočka.
- Nobody can talk in the room while the cook prepares the dough for vánočka.
- Children can’t play and jump around the place where the dough rises, but the cook should jump the highest they can so the dough rises well, and the resultant vánočka tastes good.
Vánočka – Czech Braided Sweet Bread
- 2 and ½ cups (330 g) all-purpose flour
- ⅔ stick (75 g) unsalted butter
- ⅓ cup (65 g) granulated sugar
- ⅓ cup (35 g) blanched almonds (finelly chopped)
- ⅓ cup (35 g) raisins (soaked in rum)
- 20 g fresh yeast (or 1 and ½ tsp instant yeast)
- ½ cup 120 ml milk (lukewarm)
- 1 egg (for dough)
- vanilla essence
- lemon zest (freshly grated)
- 1 egg (for egg wash)
- ½ tsp salt
- blanched almonds (chopped to sprinkle the top of vánočka)
- Sift the flour into a large mixing bowl, make a well in the center.
- Crumble the fresh yeast (or add dried yeast) into the well sprinkle with 1 tsp sugar. Pour over with a little lukewarm milk and carefully mix the liquid center together with a little flour until a mass similar to the semi-liquid batter is created. Dust with some flour and place the bowl with the mixture into the oven which is turned off. Put in the bottom of the oven a small pot with hot water. Close the oven door and let the yeast work for 30 minutes. The activated yeast should be bubbly and frothy after.
- Pour the rest milk into a bowl, add melted butter and an egg. Whisk together. Add to the flour mixture.
- Add remaining sugar, lemon zest, vanilla essence, salt. Knead everything together until the result is smooth and slightly sticky. If you use a kitchen mixer, knead the dough for 10 minutes using a paddle attachment. Kneading the dough with your hand, count on 15 minutes to finish.
- In the end, incorporate drained raisins and chopped almonds into the dough.
- Let the dough rise for a further 30 minutes in the warm place (ideally again in the steamy warm environment in the oven).
- Line a baking tray with parchment paper.
- Divide the risen dough into 2 parts (60 % and 40 %). Cur each part into 3 pieces. Roll out pieces into long strands. Braid strands as if you braided someone’s hair.
- Place the bigger braid as the base onto a lined baking tray. Flatten the middle a bit with the side of your hand and put there the other (smaller) braid on the top of the upper braid.
- Stick 3 skewers vertically into the vánočka: one in the middle, the second, and third on the ends. Skewers will help the vánočka to hold a nice shape during the rising and baking.
- Let the vánočka rise for 1 hour in a warm place (again, the best environment is in the oven with a pot with hot water inside).
- Make egg wash: whisk an egg with a fork, brush the surface of vánočka. Sprinkle with chopped almonds.
- Pre-heat oven to 320 °F (160 °C).
- Bake vánočka for 40-50 minutes. Beware! The vánočka will start to get gold in the middle of baking, cover it with tin foil so it doesn’t burn.
- Make a skewer test at the end of the baking: Insert a wooden skewer into the center of vánočka, it should come out clean, without any streaks of non-baked dough. This is a sign that the vánočka is finished!
- Take the vánočka out of the oven, remove the tin foil and skewers.
- Dust vánočka with powdered sugar.
DISCLAIMER: Because I come from Central Europe, my recipes are based on metric units such as grams or milliliters. Check out how I convert metric units to the U.S. system:Conversion chart