About the Recipe
Growing up in Canada as a Swiss immigrant was special. I was very young when my parents chose to leave Europe so I did not have many growing years in Switzerland. However, I was lucky that my parents, especially my mother, kept many traditions and passed them down to my brothers and me. One of the traditions that I always loved was that of St. Nicolas (or as we know him, Samichlaus). Celebrated on December 6th, Samichlaus comes to visit the children of Switzerland and brings them a sack full of nuts, chocolates, tangerines and cookies (that is, if the children have been good. If not, the naughty ones may risk receiving a bunch of sticks instead). In exchange for the treats, the children rehearse little poems for Samichlaus' visit and promise to keep up their good behavior for the year to come.
I guess you could say, Samichlaus is the Swiss Santa Claus. But he does not travel by a reindeer pulled sled. Instead, he comes with his donkey (Nuck) and his grumpy side kick Schmutzli. My family personally did not keep up the tradition of Smutzli, so we just had Smichlaus and Nuck. Samichlaus also never really came into our house for poems. We would just hear his bell and discover that a large burlap sack was left at the door. I can still remember the smell of the burlap. I loved it.
Side note, even though St.Nikolas comes in early December, the childern of Switzerland still receive gifts for Christmas. Only, unlike in North America, the gifts do not come from Santa Claus, they are delivered by the Christkind (Christ Child) in the evening of December 24th. He is an angel that delivers the presents and with his departure the sound of a ringing bell. But this is a story for another time. Let's get back to the Grittibanz.
So, in celebration of Samichlaus coming, Grittibanz figures are made. They are made of a sweet bread dough, the same as used to make Zopf.
Decorated with raisins and pearl sugar, these bread people can be eaten with jam or cold cuts and cheese.
Not only were the contents of the burlap sack something to look forward to, but I always enjoyed the surprise of what figures my mother would make. These days, my girls love to get in on the fun and they make their own, and of course I do too.
500g All-Purpose Flour
2.5dl Milk (warmed)
3 Tablespoons Water
Pinch of Salt
Pinch of Sugar
Raisins or Dried Cranberries
To make the dough, first combine the flour and salt in a large bowl. In a second microwaveable bowl, heat up your milk so that it is lukewarm (not hot). You can equally do this in a saucepan on the stove if you prefer. Add the yeast and sugar to the milk. Stir until combined. I let the milk mixture sit for about 10-15minutes, just to get the yeast activated.
Pour the milk mixture into the bowl with the flour and add in the butter and egg. Use your hands to knead everything into a nice smooth dough. (If you find the dough is really sticking to your fingers, you can add a little more flour). Make the dough into a ball and let sit for 30-40 minutes or until the dough has doubled. I usually cover my bowl with a kitchen towel, but you can use clingwrap as well. Zopf dough posted previously. Only this one is slightly sweetened.
Once your dough has risen, preheat your oven to 375F. Divide the dough into two equal halves. I usually cut away a third of each half, to use that portion of the dough to decorate and dress my little characters. The remaining 2/3 I use to make the body. I usually like to line a sheet pan and make my characters directly on it. That way, there is no fumbling around with the dough and risk of accidental breakage once the characters are assembled.
To form the main body, cut slits on either side to make the arms and one slit down the center of the bottom to make the legs. From there, you can decorate as you wish. You can add hair, a hat, a scarf, belt, pants, whatever you like. Let your imagination loose! Once accessorized, make the egg wash by combining the egg with the water, salt and sugar. Mix well and use a pastry brush to coat the dough characters with an even layer. I find it is better to add the egg wash before any raisins or sugar, as it will help them stick. Also, the egg wash will give your Grittibanz a nice glossy golden finish. Once you have added the egg wash, you can complete your decorating of the characters with raisins and pearl sugar. Make sure to really sink the raisins into the dough so that they don't pop off during the baking process. (Repeat this process for the other half of the dough).
Bake for 20-30 minutes or until the dough is cooked and they are beautifully golden.
Serve with butter and jam or cheese and cold cuts along with the nuts, fruits and other goodies from Samichlaus.