Although the Zelten contain yeast, they are not breads, for they do not have the open crumb characteristic of a yeast-risen dough. The texture of the Zelten is that of a rich fruitcake, and the bread dough serves only to bind all the diverse elements together.
A cross between Panforte di Siena and an English fruitcake, Zelten are the traditional Christmas dessert in the Alto Adige, Italy’s only official German-speaking region, where Bolzano is located.
Be sure to make the Zelten several weeks in advance to give them an opportunity to mellow before serving.
For the fruits, nuts, and flavorings, combine all ingredients in a nonreactive bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and leave to macerate at least 24 hours or up to 5 days.
On the day you wish to assemble and bake the Zelten, prepare the dough: combine the flour and salt in a bowl and stir to mix well. Measure warm tap water (105 degrees) and whisk the yeast into it. Add to the flour mixture, stirring to mix well. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to ferment about 1 hour, until double. Turn the dough out onto a well-floured surface and fold over on itself several times to deflate (the dough will be soft — use a spatula or bench scraper if necessary). Return the dough to the bowl, cover, and allow to ferment again until double, about 40 minutes.
Add the dough to the fruit mixture, squeezing the fruit in with both hands. Continue squeezing and tossing the mixture to mix the fruit in evenly — this will take at least 10 minutes of active mixing. Cover the bowl and allow to rest 30 minutes before shaping.
For the syrup, combine all the ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a boil over low heat, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar. Pour the syrup into a bowl and cool.
To form the Zelten, divide the dough into
Bake the Zelten at 325 degrees for about 30 minutes, basting with the syrup every 10 minutes. The Zelten are done if they feel firm when pressed with a fingertip.
Remove the Zelten from the oven and paint again with the remaining syrup. Allow to cool completely on a rack; cover loosely with a towel and leave at room temperature until the next day. Decorate each with 5 or 6 almonds, forming a border around the edge. Wrap the Zelten tightly in plastic wrap, then aluminum foil, and store in a cool, dry place to age for 2 weeks to 1 month.
Whole, blanched almonds, lightly toasted, for finishing
© 1990 Nick Malgieri. All rights reserved.