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December 2001

Sweet Talk

The story behind a few of southern Germany's Christmas baked goods.

When the scents of the Orient waft through the German household, it means that Christmastime is not far away. The aroma of such exotic spices as cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and anise conjures up yuletide feelings in a way that perfumed candles and synthetic scented oils could never do. The weather outside may be frightful, but, indoors, a log crackles in the fireplace and baked apples sizzle in the oven. Christmas cookie baking in Germany is always a special event, especially when undertaken as a family project. Recipes are passed on through the generations. My daughter bakes my recipes, most of which came from my mother. When working with the dough, she uses the same old pear-wood rolling pin my grandmother used and, before cutting out cookie shapes, the pastry board my great grandfather made is always ceremoniously taken down from the wall of our high-tech kitchen, where it hangs as a decorative piece—as a reminder of the some 50,000 cookies that four generations have made over the years.

Today, those who make their own Christmas sweets are acutely aware of the year’s seasonal retail cycle: starting as early as mid-September store shelves are brimming with chocolate Santa Clauses made from melted Easter bunnies. At home, however, the eager and excited child who bakes holiday cookies with his or her parents will have memories to last a lifetime. And, those who savor the taste of homemade Christmas baked goods, will probably never find their way back to the mass-produced cookies sold in the grocery store, or even those of the neighborhood bakery.

Because German homemakers do not keep their recipes “close to the chest,” you will find that asking neighbors for their favorite recipes—some may offer you a bevy of baking ideas—is a piece of cake. In our family we have about a dozen recipes at the ready each year. As the holidays approach, we pull these out and discuss which ones we will bake—and then we make them all: Zimtsterne (cinnamon stars), Hildetörtchen (jelly-filled sandwich cookies), Nusshäufchen (little nut heaps), Schokoladenbrot (chocolate bread), Zitronenlebkuchen (lemon Lebkuchen), Vanillekipferl (vanilla crescents), Springerle (sugar cookies with a relief design), Florentines, Spitzbuben (jelly-filled sandwich cookies), Walnussplätzchen (walnut cookies), Pfeffernüsse (gingerbread) and Elisenlebkuchen (Lebkuchen made with only a small amount of flour). German homemakers are, in fact, so proud of their recipes that they even post them on the Web.

Perhaps as complex as choosing recipes is the search for suitable tins in which to store your Christmas bounty of baked goods. These serve to keep cookies and Lebkuchen from drying out—modern heating will turn them in to inedible, hard nuggets—and to seal in flavor. A word to the wise: do not use plastic bags! Not only will your cookies fail to develop a rich flavor, but any decorative artwork with which you have topped them will melt.

The practice of producing decorative baked goods on special occasions is a tradition that can be traced back to ancient India, Mesopotamia and Egypt. Greeks and Romans, too, baked flat cakes using pottery or stone molds. In Pompeii, under the ashes of Vesuvius, archaeologists have found such molds. Their intricate relief designs resemble those found on excavated vases and household vessels.

German Christmas baking has its roots in the monastic life of the Middle Ages. Literate monks could read the recipes and a full harvest yielded such an abundance of nuts, flour and spices that it was possible to bake provisions for the monastery and the poor that would keep over the winter months. Because most monasteries had their own apiaries, honey was the sweetener of choice—monks created the first Honiglebkuchen.

The origins of the word Lebkuchen are unclear, though it probably derives from the word Leben (life) or Laib (loaf). Invented in the 13th century, this southern German specialty was soon in such high demand that monastery ovens could no longer produce it quickly enough, prompting commercial bakers to pick up the slack. This led to the establishment of a new Lebzelter guild in Munich in 1473. Lebzelter were bakers, honey wine makers and candle makers in one. They were the first to present such Gebildegebäck —molded cookies depicting a variety of scenes—as Springerle and Honiglebkuchen.

In the 15th century the centers of Lebkuchen art were found in Aachen, Frankfurt, Cologne, Lübeck, Munich, Graz, Vienna, Basel and, most notably, Nuremberg. Lebkuchen —the versatile food—was a vital part of holiday gift giving and also served as a provision for travelers. Emperor Frederick III certainly made use of the baked good’s popularity in 1487, when he, on voting day in Nuremberg, distributed 4,000 Lebkuchen treats bearing his own image. Doing brisk spice business with Venice and supplied with a huge quantity of honey from locations to its north and west, Nuremburg—also known as the “bee garden of the Holy Roman Empire”—had everything it needed to produce Lebkuchen for the masses. What started there as a private and cooperative enterprise quickly became a flourishing industry, for Lebkuchen did not simply look attractive and taste wonderful, it had a long “shelf life” and could easily be transported to other parts of Germany. The finest variety of the chewy, round cookie from Nuremberg is the Elisenlebkuchen, named after a local resident who reinvented the specialty by mixing in almonds and candied fruit. Elisenlebkuchen contains only ten percent flour—at least one quarter of the baked good consists of ground almonds and hazelnuts. Nutritious, delicious and attractive, Elisenlebkuchen is one of Nuremberg’s trademark export foods.

As sugarcane made its way to Europe in the late 16th century and the first sugar refinery was founded in Germany, monks and Lebzelter lost their importance as Lebkuchen bakers. More and more baked sweets began to be produced—decorated cookies formed in hand-carved wooden molds became more popular than ever. While, originally, most motifs were of religious themes—such as the Osterlamm (Easter lamb)—the baked goods of the late Renaissance period in the second half of the 16th century reflected an increasingly self-confident bourgeoisie—cookies were shaped like coats of arms.

In the 17th century, the manufacture of the delectable disks came under control of the handworkers’ union: only Lebkuchen specialists and Lebzelter were allowed to make brown Lebkuchen and gingerbread. “Sugar bakers” were left to make Lebkuchen varieties that contained no honey. Contrary to popular belief, it is the honey—not the spices—that provides Lebkuchen with its amber hue. Molasses and beet sugar syrup were also used when honey supplies diminished. These served to preserve Lebkuchen’s flavorful integrity.

In vogue in the early Baroque period were biblical themes—virtually all baked goods depicted scenes from the Old or New Testament. It is then that cookies and other specialties began to be created and served on special occasions. The Bible had become “edible” and people’s hunger for food with pictures was insatiable because illiteracy was still widespread. Eventually, secular scenes were pressed into the dough—women at the spinning wheel, women with chickens, girls with baskets, hunters with their kill, animals and flowers. One theme achieved top status: love. Romantic scenes often included hearts at the center of which appeared a courting couple riding in a horse-drawn carriage or a cradle full of children. Molded cookies became extremely fashionable and the ultimate gift at holiday time.

Today, early molds can be admired in museum display cases. Though the products of these items have long disappeared, one imagines that today’s homemade Christmas cookies do not taste any less delicious than the chewy Honiglebkuchen and crunchy Springerle of the 14th century.

Mass-produced baked goods are now made throughout the year. Sadly, German baked specialties have lost their charm and regional character. Take, for instance, Springerle. Swabians named the cookie because it must rise, or “spring,” overnight. The same name is used in Switzerland to describe an anise-based bar and in Franconia “egg marzipan.” Springerle were originally a product of southern Germany. A labor of love, these cookies require a lot of time and patience. The tasty Plätzchen are decorated with icing and either eaten or used—they last for years—as Christmas tree ornaments. The hard treats should be made in November and stored in tins so that, by December 24, they will have lost their tooth-breaking qualities. The secret to fine Springerle is the thorough mixing of egg and sugar. After stamping an impression on the dough with the wooden form, the dough must be kept in a warm place for one or two days’ “drying time.” During this phase, the egg whites rise to the top, forming the relief and leaving a so-called Füsschen (little foot) as a base. A well-made Springerle will form the white relief after merely 20 minutes in the oven (at 160°C) and the base will turn golden brown. It is always a thrill to observe the clear definition between the white decoration and the cookie bottom—such a successful result is the pride of every cookie baker.

Aachener Printen, Basler Leckerli and every other form of Gebildegebäck belong to the i>Lebkuchen family. They, like their traditional “parents,” consist of small amounts of flour, honey or molasses and such typical Lebkuchen spices as ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and anise as well as almonds, raisins and candied lemon or orange peel. The rather heavy ingredients are then given a lift through the use of ammonium carbonate, potash or baking powder, all of which lighten the dough, increase its volume and keep your goodies from turning into doorstops!

The history of Aachener Printen is not only about ingredients, but is a political tale as well. After Charlemagne was crowned, on Christmas Day in 800, the town became a pilgrimage site. The emperor granted Aachen’s bakers the right to make Gebildegebäck for pilgrims. These Lebkuchen cookies, baked in the shape of Christian symbols, served not only to satiate physical hunger. Some pilgrims believed that these cookies could also sate spiritual hunger—the sweets were thought to lead to eternal life. When, in the 16th century, Dutch bakers sought exile in Aachen from their war-torn homeland, they brought their own Lebkuchen recipe with them as well as beautifully carved wooden cookie molds. It was then that the simple Gebildegebäck forms were replaced by the intricate Dutch Printen . Saint Nicholas, Saint Barbara and the Madonna and Child were just some of the images pressed into the spicy dough.

The Aachener Printen of today are no longer decorated with fine wooden molds, a result of a change in ingredients. In the early 19th century, honey and sugarcane were replaced by beet sugar as the vegetable grows in abundance on German soil. On account of the new sweetener, a thin syrup, it became impossible to decorate the Christmas specialty with depictions of saints and knights, men and women, for the heat of the oven would melt the scenes imprinted on them. Today’s Printen are plain—rectangular sheets of dough, which are cut into hand or bite-sized pieces after they are baked. These are eaten as an accompaniment to a glass of wine. Aachener Printen dough is made in early spring and stored, like wine, in cellars. Time is needed for the spices to intensify and to ensure a long “shelf life.” Those who wish to bake the cookies at home may wish to make them in late December, as the batch will surely be small enough to be consumed over the Christmas holidays.

Spekulatius is another German Christmas favorite that made its way to this country from Holland. It is a light, golden butter cookie so delectable that most people find it hard to resist its addictive charms. The origin of the cookie’s name may derive from the Latin word Spekulum, signifying “mirror image,” which alludes to the wooden mold whose mirror image appears on the cookie. In the mid-18th century, the recipe was brought to Germany from Amsterdam, a time when Dutch bakers were famous for their fine baked goods. Their myriad cookie creations are still one of Holland’s most important exports. “Speculaas” usually pay a tribute to Saint Nicholas—most are in the shape of Santa with his sack of toys. The whimsical treat is, therefore, included in the German “Nicholas” tradition on the evening of December 6—the birthday of Saint Nicholas of Smyrna—when the jolly Saint leaves children nuts, tangerines and cookies in a boot they set before the door. Alternatively, more sadistic parents rent costumes and scare their kids: Saint Nick and his evil manservant Ruprecht read children a list of their bad deeds and threaten them with a switch beating, then hand out cookies. It is said that a good number of adults still shrink from the sight of a Nicholas on account of their childhood experiences.

Dense and delicious, Stollen is the polar opposite of the light and crispy Spekulatius. The fruit-filled loaf can be found in other countries as well. Italy, for example, bakes its version, called pan santo, “holy bread.” Both are based on the assumption that, when ingredients considered to be good, expensive and rich in fat are mixed together, a long-lasting, tasty loaf will result. But, this was not always the case. In the 15th century, Stollen was made only of the simplest ingredients—flour, yeast and water—because the Catholic Church did not permit the use of butter or milk. In 1450, Elector Ernst of Saxony and his brother asked Pope Nicholas V to allow butter to be used. The Pope, perhaps realizing that Germans, unlike the Italians, did not have olive oil, let himself be talked into writing the “Butter Letter,” giving the creamy dairy product his blessing. (The fact that the Pope “coincidentally” signed the decree during the time of his annual charity drive to raise money for a new cathedral proved to be a lucrative stroke of genius.)

A 1474 receipt from a hospital refectory in Dresden proves that the city’s own “Christstollen” was sold more than 500 years ago. In 1500, Dresden’s Christmas markets offered “Christbrote” (Christ breads). It is said that this Stollen’s shape was meant to resemble the cloth in which the Christ Child was swaddled.

Bakers of Dresden brought Stollen to its most outrageous form. In 1560, the city bakers gave their Saxon leader a 36-pound Stollen for Christmas. It took eight master bakers and eight assistants to carry the fruity bread to the castle. In 1730, Augustus the Strong commissioned Dresden’s bakers’ guild to make a giant 1.8-ton Stollen. The extra-large loaf was served to more than 24,000 guests at a party celebrating soldiers’ successful completion of four weeks at training camp. The weighty Stollen was made with the help of 100 assistants and was baked in an oven that was stoked for seven days. An eight-horse coach delivered the treat to the camp. As the story goes, there was no knife on hand at the party, so Augustus the Strong whipped out his sword.

Given the popularity of the 20th-century invention The Guinness Book of World Records, this historical giant baked good could not go unchallenged: in the early 1990s, a professor from Dresden spent one year puzzling over a way to bake a three-ton version of the Dresden trademark Vierpfünder (four-pounder). Of course, the specialty’s ingredients would be vastly different from those of its mammoth predecessor. In 1730, Stollen was glorified white bread compared to the rich mix of filberts, almonds and raisins we know today. It is also presumed that Augustus was served a less-than-appetizing slice of Stollen, as the big bread was baked in a single oven and was therefore surely crunchy on the outside and mushy on the inside. (Though no existing documentation suggests that the Stollen was not enjoyed by all who attended the event.)

Today’s giant Dresden Stollen is baked over a three-week period and requires 80 ovens. Approximately 370 Stollen pans—each hold 11 kg—are part of the professor’s elaborate plan to bake loaves separately and then fit them together to make one gargantuan fruit-bread loaf. Dresden’s “Stollenfest,” which takes place every year on the second Advent Saturday, is kicked off with the unveiling of the Stollen . Proceeds from the sale of portions of the rich bread are donated to a charitable cause.

Another typical southern German, pre-Christmas delectable is Kletzenbrot. Kletzen is an antiquated Bavarian term for “pears.” Because only a few pear varieties can be stored over the winter months, the fruit is often dried. The whole pear shrivels, or, in German, becomes “hutzelig”—the sweet bread is, therefore, called “Hutzelbrot” in some areas. The bread was formerly a sign of a bountiful harvest and played an important role in popular belief. In Baden it was baked every December 21, on St. Thomas’ Day, which was not only known as the day of “doubting Thomas,” but was also the winter solstice. The bread was not served, however, until December 26, St. Stephen’s Day, or, it was said, the premature server would grow jackass ears.

I would love to revive the trick with the mule ears. Perhaps that would help in slowing down the inexplicable disappearance of cookies from my tins before December 24.

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