Christmas Cookies

Every Christmas I go a little crazy baking cookies.  I am pretty sure that I am trying to recreate memories of baking Christmas cookies with my mom.  This year it was quite clear that my baking ventured down memory lane.  My mother (baby in the wicker buggy), grew up in a flat above her father's (man with the mustache) bakery on Michigan Ave in Chicago.  My grandfather was pastry chef who trained in Germany then immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1890's. The picture below was probably taken around 1915. Unfortunately my grandfather died when my mother was a teenager so I never knew him and she always regretted not having the opportunity to gather recipes and learn his baking secrets.  When I baked with my mother at Christmas, she often tried to create holiday breads, cakes and cookies she remembered her father baking. This was before the internet and finding recipes was more difficult.

This year I was excited to discover Luisa Weiss' new book Classic German Baking: The Very Best Recipes for Traditional Favorites from Pfeffernusse to Streuselkuchen.  The book devotes an entire chapter to Christmas cookies.  According to Luisa, baking cookies at Christmas became very popular in Germany during the 1890's.  In the weeks before Christmas, friends would visit each others home and it was traditional to serve the bunter Teller "color plate" which was a plate showing off a wide variety of cookies as well as holiday breads.  According to Luisa, the minimum variety to aspire to was ten. Cookies were often smaller than usual so people could be comfortable trying many samples. While I only baked five varieties. I am pretty sure my mother achieved the requisite ten in her baking efforts.  Here are the pictures of my German Christmas cookie baking adventure. I hope my relatives enjoyed their cookie gift boxes.

Haselnuss-Himbeer Makronen (Hazelnut-Raspberry Macaroons) - these were my favorite, sadly the parchment of 2 pans slid off when I moved them and the cookies shattered on the floor so we had very few.  My dogs on the other hand were pretty happy. These cookies happen to be gluten free. Spekulatius (Almond Spice) - these cookies fall into the - category of dunking cookies.  Apparently cookies that could be kept a long time, 6 months +, and got so hard you could not bite them without dunking first in coffee or tea were very popular.  We enjoyed these at the crispy stage.

Heidesand (Sandy Almond Cookies) rolled in pearl sugar that does not melt before being sliced.

These cookies are a German version of shortbread or sablé. They have a sandy texture that is supposed to be evocative the sandy earth in the area of Lünebure Heath in northern Germany. The almond flavor is very subtle.

These cookies are a German version of shortbread or sablé. They have a sandy texture that is supposed to be evocative the sandy earth in the area of Lünebure Heath in northern Germany. The almond flavor is very subtle.

Spices for flavoring Lebkuchen - gingerbread

Lebkuchen-Powidltatschkerln (Plum-Filled Gingerbread Pockets) - More dunking cookies but they are very soft when first baked.  I am going to save a dozen to try when they get hard. They are about 3 weeks old and beginning to have a crunch.  The traditional plum butter filling is made with Italian prune plums seasoned with cinnamon and cloves.   I used a Santa Rosa plum butter flavored with ginger that I make last summer. I thought it was great.

Springerle (Swabian Anise Cookies) - These were my favorite to make. So pretty and they have such an old world look.  The come from Swabia in southeastern Germany and are flavored with lemon zest and anise seed. The leavening is baker's ammonia.  I definitely recall baking these with my mom and that neither one of us liked them.  The flavors probably didn't appeal to me as a child but the larger problem was the texture. Luisa provides the answer. The cookies rest for 24 hours at room temperature to dry out. Then just before baking they sit on a damp towel for a few minutes, are transfered to the baking sheet sprinkled with anise seed then into the oven. The damp towel helps them rise.  The top is thin and crunchy, the middle is soft and there is a crunchy outer edge referred to as "feet." These are also dunkers so I have my dozen saved to try when they harden.  Saving them was difficult because everyone loved the soft center inside the light crunchy outside.