If traditional holiday fare means turkey and trimmings to most Americans, it means stollen, a rich, fruit-studded yeast bread, to the people of Germany. For centuries,families here have celebrated the Christmas season with these tapered oval loaves. An estimated 15 million were baked in West Germany last year.

The lengthened oval shape, symbolic of the Christ child in swaddling clothes, has remained uncahanged since stollen was first produced more than 500 years ago. Recipes have been altered, however, and modern stollen are probably much tastier as a result. For example, earliest recipes never contained butter,because fasting laws prohibited its use during Advent and Christmas. Put, after 1647when papal permission was first granted to prepare holiday baked goods with butter, it gradually became an essential ingredient in stollen recipes.

Today, homemade and fine bakery stollen are usually slightly sweet, laden with butter (never margarine) and heavy with liquer-plumped dried fruit and nuts. The most famous recipe, features a lavish mixture of almonds, raisins, glaceed citrus bits, angelica and candied cherries. The fruits are soaked in rum and accented with fresh grated lemon peel.

Not all stollen are such extravagant creations. Those found during November and December in huge stacks in German supermarkets and at fairs for tourists are likely to be bland and to have only a scant, uninteresting sprinkling of tidbits.

Despite the continuing importance of stollen in German Christmas celebrations, many housewives do not actually prepare their own. Particularly in large country households where the number of loaves needed is great, it is common to assemble the ingredients at home in a large tub and then carry them, along with the special family recipe, to a trusted baker for mixing and baking. Afterward the stollen-sometimes many dozens of them-are taken back home, dusted with powdered sugar and wrapped in paper.

Traditionally, the loaves are prepared very early in the seasons and then stored in a cupboard or attic until needed for giving or enjoying with coffee. Most families say stollen improves upon keeping and regard the resulting dryness of the dough as normal.

For American tastes, however, fragrant, moist loaves, still tender-warm from the oven are likely to seem preferable. To preserve this freshness more than a day or so, stollen should be wrapped and placed in the freezer instead of on the pantry shelf.

RAISIN STOLLEN

(2 loaves) 1 cup dark seedless raisins 1 cup golden seedless raisins 1/2 cup quartered candied cherries 1 tablespoon brandy 1/4 cup very warm water (105 to 115 degrees) 1 1/2 packets active dry yeast 3/4 cup milk 1 cup unsalted butter, softened 2/3 cup granulated sugar 1/4 teaspoon salt 2 eggs plus 2 yolks, beaten 2/4 teaspoon almond extract 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract 4 3/4 to 5 cups flour 3 to 4 tablespoons stifted confectioners' sugar

Toss raisins and cherries with brandy and get aside. In a measuring cup, sprinkle yeast over warm water. Stir occasionally until particles are dissolved. Scald milk and remove from heat. Stir in softened butter, sugar and salt. When butter is melted,turn mixture into a large bowl. Stir in beaten eggs and yolks, extracts and yeast mixture,

With a large kitchen spoon, gradually beat 4 3/4 cups flour into the liquid. Set dough aside to rest 10 minutes. Begin kneading in the bowl. If dough is too moist to handle, stir in more flour, however, add only enough to produce a manageable, but still soft, buttery dough.

Knead in the bowl 10 minutes. Cover bowl with a slightly dampened cloth and set in a warm spot. Let rise 60 to 70 minutes or until dough doubles in bulk. Gradually knead in raisins and cherries,distributing throughout dough.

Divide dough into 2 equal portions. On a lightly floured surface, roll out (or press out with the hands) one portion to form a rectangle about 12 inches long and 10 1/2 inches wude. Form a loaf by folding one long side into the center, then folding the other in so it overlaps the first about 3/4 inch. Press the seam down gently to hold it in place. With a spatula transfer stollen to a greased baking sheet. Taper the ends of the loaf slightly to form a smooth, gently rounded shape. Allow ample room for bread to rise. Repeat process for the second portion of dough. Set loaves in a warm place and let rise for 45 minutes.

Bake at 350 degrees for 40 to 45 minutes. If loavesbegin to brown too rapidly, reduce heat to 325 degrees for the last 20 minutes. However, stollen should be well-browned and crusty when done. With a spatula, remove loaves to wire racks. Let cool for 10 minutes. Sprinkle generously with powdered sugar, and serve. Or allow stollen to cool thoroughly, wrap in storage bags and freeze up to 3 weeks. Thaw completely, warm in foil, sprinkle with sugar and serve.

FRAU NEUMANN'S BEST STOLLEN

(3 loaves) 3/4 cup seedless raisins 1/2 cup candied lemon, orange and lime peel, diced 1/2 cup candied pineapple,diced 1/2 cup candied cherries, quartered 1/2 cup currants 1/2 cup rum 1/4 cup very warm water (105 to 115degrees) 2 packets active dry yeast 3/4 cup granulated sugar 1 cup milk 1/2 teaspoon salt1/2 teaspoon almond extract 1/4 teaspoon fresh grated lemon rind 3 eggs, beaten 5 1/4 to 5 1/2 cups flour 2 sticks unsalted butter, softened 1 cup blanched, slivered almonds 1/3 cup sifted confectioners' sugar

Combine raisins, candied fruit and currants in a bowl with rum. Toss fruit well, cover and set aside for at least 4 hours.

In a cup, sprinkle yeast over warm water. Let stand several minutes, then stir until particles are dissolved. Stir in a pinch of sugar and set aside 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, place milk, sugar and salt in a saucepan over medium heat. Stirring occasionally, heat until milk is very warm, almost hot to the touch. Stir mixture until sugar is dissolved and place in a large bowl. Add extract and lemon rind. Stir in yeast, whuch will be very foamy. Drain rum from the fruit and the liquid to milk mixture. Add beaten eggs and stir well.

With a large kitchen spoon, gradually beat 5 cups flour into the mixture. Then beat softened butter into the dough; gradually add 1 stick, plus 2 tablespoons. Set dough aside 10 minutes.

Spread drained fruit on a layer of paper towels. Blot additional moisture with more towels. Return dry fruit to a clean bowl, add 2 tablespoon flour and the almonds and toss well.

Place dough on a floured surface and begin kneading. If necessary, add a bit more flour as you work, but be careful not to overflour the dough. Knead 10 minutes. Gently press fruit and nuts into the dough, about 1/4 cup at a time. Avoid overworking, or dough will discolour. Return stollen to a greased bowl. Brush dough surface with a tablespoon of the remaining butter. Cover bowl with a slightly dampened cloth and set in a warm spot 2 hours or until dough doubles in bulk

Punch down and divide into three equal portions. On a greased surface roll out each portion to form a rectangle about 11 inches long and 18 1/2 inches wide. Spread the surface of each rectangle into the center, then folding the other in so it overlaps the first about 1/2 inch. Press down each seam to hold it in place. With a spatula transfer loaves to spread baking sheets. Taper ends of each loaf slightly to form a smooth, gently rounded shape. Grease stollen tops with remaining 5 tablespoons of butter. Set in a warm spot and let rise 1 hour,

Bake in a 375-degree oven for about 40 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees if loaves begin to brown too rapidly, however, they should be slightly crusty and well-browned when done. Remove loaves to wire racks with a spatula. Cool 10 minutes, dust with powdered sugar and serve. Or allow stollen to cool thoroughly, wrap in storage bags and freeze up to 3 weeks. Thaw completely, warm in foil, dust with the sugar and serve. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, by Trina Schart Hyman from "The Bread book"