You can tell a lot about a person by their holiday traditions, not all of it flattering. Take the family of my husband, Paul, for example, who are obsessed each season with getting an enormous, live Christmas tree and ensuring that it is aligned at a perfect 90-degree angle. Slightly askew is not permissible. To achieve this result, they rig the tree with cables anchored to the wall and bark directions at one another. There may be protractors involved.
You would be correct in assuming this is a family of perfectionists. The scientific rigor came from Paul’s father, a Jesuit-educated astrophysicist who despaired that his five children didn’t follow him into astronomy. (When Paul was accepted to law school, his father sighed with deep disappointment: “But Paul, you’re bright enough to do science.”)
So, perhaps to compensate for not having little Galileos as offspring, the need for precision and scientific method spilled into other arenas — Christmas tree posture, and the proper sequencing of ornaments. Large ornaments on the bottom, small ornaments on top, gradations of size in between. Woe to anyone who hangs a plus-size ornament mid-tree, as I once did when we were first married. It will be rehung. Obey the method.
Paul doesn’t find any of this at all odd. I suppose no one finds their traditions strange until they intersect with another person’s and certain assumptions are laid bare. “Well, that’s just always the way we’ve done it.” It’s not like my family is perfect. (If we were, those trees would stand a lot straighter.) We have our own holiday weirdness.
“You spend two whole days making dry, butterless cookies that taste like putrid black jelly beans,” Paul alleges.
“That’s anise seed,” I correct.
“Why do you insist on making those awful things?”
Tradition. And they aren’t awful, they’re springerles (pronounced spring-er-lees) — a molded German cookie that dates to the Middle Ages. It’s not Christmas without springerles.
“I’m sorry you lack the sophistication to appreciate fine homemade baked goods,” I sniff. “Perhaps you would prefer something squeezed from a tube and adorned with artificial sprinkles.”
An acquired taste
Not everyone is a fan of springerles. It’s true, they don’t have butter, and they’re exceptionally difficult to make. But that just means you must work harder to appreciate their charms. Assuming you can stick it out. Springerles take one day to make and another 24 hours to dry before baking, and then (for the hardcore fans) another month after that to store them, so the anise flavor deepens. And isn’t that what the holiday season is all about? Delayed gratification!
The inherent suffering makes the springerle cookie completely on brand for my family — stern, Nordic, Midwestern people who have a complicated relationship with pleasure. No goopy icing or chocolate glazing for us. That’s too easy. We need difficult cookies.
In my experience, all the German Christmas cookies are varying degrees of impossible. Lebkuchen (ginger cookies) require boiling honey and using communion wafers as a base. Zimtsterne (cinnamon stars) have a gooey dough that must be rolled out with ground almonds, not flour. Pfeffernüsse (spice cookies) are made from leftover artillery shells from the second World War. OK, not really. Actually, I don’t know what Pfeffernüsse are made of. The ones my mother enjoys are a sort of white-glazed puck you could concuss someone with.
Hardness is a Christmas cookie metric in my family. It’s not a failing; it’s a desired outcome. Last year, I sent my mother springerles, and she complained they were too soft. So, she stuck them in the oven on a low temperature to toughen them up. She cannot abide a weak cookie.
My maternal grandfather used to wait months until his springerles were rock hard (and extra anisey) so he could dunk them in his coffee and gnaw on them. They do not yield easily. I believe other cultures call this “hard tack.”
If you’re looking for a difficult cookie, the springerle delivers. They require intricate hand-carved wooden molds to make. You can’t just use stuff you have around the kitchen.
Collecting the molds is a whole other discourse. Among springerle aficionados, there are those who use resin molds (amateurs), those who use only wood (old school) and those who use special rolling pins (lazy). Really, just forget the rolling pins. If you want a lot of blobby springerles fast, OK. But the point of springerles is the incredible detailed designs that can be achieved only with molds. They’re little works of art.
Modern molds have your typical holiday scenes — Santa, sleighs, bells, reindeer and other kitsch. Old, wooden German molds, however, have grim, moralistic lessons taken from the Bible and fairy tales, like Der Struwwelpeter (slovenly Peter) and his long fingernails, or Cruel Frederick whipping his rocking horse. These are the molds I prefer, and the weirder the better.
Some of my antique molds include: a peasant woman holding a strangled chicken, Prussian soldiers on horseback, avenging angels, children with shovels and a disembodied head. Hunting for unusual molds is part of the joy of springerles. And imagine the fun you’ll have at cookie swaps. Is that a strangled chicken?
Sharing the love
Of course, you can’t give these creations to just anyone. I mostly bake them for my family, but every now and then I find a kindred spirit. One time, Paul and I were invited to a Christmas party by our gracious neighbor Linda. Afterward, I wrote a thank-you note and left some springerles at her door. Paul said, “I thought you were thanking her, not punishing her.”
She immediately wrote back to say she hadn’t had springerles since her Midwestern childhood. And what fond memories they brought back. A friendship was born. Linda’s now part of my exclusive Springerle Appreciator Society, and I give her cookies every Christmas. She, in turn, sends me every article she has ever read on springerles.
The other person I bake them for is my Aunt Patti, 77, who is a staunch Christmas cookie traditionalist. For as long as I can remember, she has made springerles every holiday, along with gingerbread, Aunt Mildred’s sugar cookies, Aunt Hazel’s Zimtsterne, almond crescents and walnut bars. The rotation never changes. These recipes take a generation to learn and perfect. Who has time for experimentation?
My Aunt Patti’s springerle recipe is translated from the original German. It’s the one I use, and at age 56, I’ve spent the last 20 years trying to match her cookie prowess with varying degrees of success. She’s the person I call when my dough is too sticky, or not sticky enough. We compare methods. I’ve always been the novice, and the recipient of her cookies. But last year hip surgery sidelined her baking, so I sent her my springerles.
“Nice lift. I see you didn’t roll the dough out too thin,” she said.
“Nope. I learned that lesson.”
“Good texture,” she said.
This is high praise. A springerle must be eggy and light on the inside, but firm on the outside, to retain the print design.
“Your sister said they were too soft,” I said.
“Not the batch you sent me,” she said.
“Well, I sent her the first batch. I must’ve saved the best ones for you.”
With a new hip, Aunt Patti’s back to baking this year, but I feel the German cookie mantle might be passing on to me. What’s the point of years of toil, if not to maintain the tradition?
Paul’s father has been gone for four years now. His children still straighten their trees. No one in my family can eat a springerle and not remember my grandfather’s penchant for hard cookies. It’s odd the things we hang on to.
But probably not as odd as a strangled chicken-shaped cookie. Happy holidays!
Aunt Patti's Springerle Recipe
Servings: approximately 30 cookies
- 4 jumbo-size eggs, or 5 regular eggs at room temperature
- 2 cups sugar
- 2 teaspoons anise extract
- 4 cups flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- Anise seeds
- Shortening to grease cookie sheets
Prepare cookie sheets by greasing them with shortening and sprinkling anise seeds all over the sheet. Using an electric mixer, beat eggs for 10 minutes until thick and foamy. Very gradually, add sugar for another 15 minutes of beating, until light and fluffy. Do not skip this step and add sugar too soon, or all at once. This beating is where the texture comes from. Beat in the anise extract. Slowly add flour and baking soda. The dough should be stiff and sticky. With flour on your hands, put some dough on a floured board and roll out with a regular rolling pin to ½ inch thick.
Prepare your molds by dusting them with flour using a pastry brush. I’ve found that Wondra, or very finely milled flour, works best. Get it in all the crevices, or the dough will stick to the molds and not come out. Wooden molds release the cookie much easier than resin ones do.
Stamp out figures into the dough using floured molds. Cut out each figure and place on a greased cookie sheet prepared with anise seeds. When they bake, the cookies will absorb the anise seeds and have a seed-coated bottom.
Let the cookies stand for 24 hours before baking. This dries the design, so it’s retained after baking.
The next day, preheat the oven to 375°F, but turn the temperature down to 300°F prior to baking. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes. Cookies shouldn’t get brown, but they do plump up at the bottom.
Cool and enjoy. Or if you like dunkers, keep them in a tin for up to a month, and they’ll get hard and extra anise-flavored.
Tracy Schorn is a writer who runs the popular advice site, ChumpLady.com, and was the former editor of state news at the AARP Bulletin.
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