When I was a kid, we used to go to this German restaurant and store in Dallas called Kuby’s. It was a hang-out spot for my grandmother and her German immigrant friends. I especially liked going there around Christmastime. Germans really know how to do Christmas right, and that whole place was turned into a Christmas wonderland with so many wonderful goodies. At least that’s how I remember it.
We’d always get an advent calendar with little cardboard doors to punch out and get a chocolate each day until Christmas. For Christmas I’d sometimes get these imported packaged cookies that “Santa” probably got from Kuby’s too. There were these little round spice cookies coated in white icing called Pfeffernusse, and these other spice cookies that were bigger, and came in different shapes like hearts and stars, and some of them also had white icing, but some of them were covered with chocolate.
This time of year, around Yule, when it gets cold outside, I start really craving German food. I never really want it the rest of the year, just when it’s cold and drizzly outside, so a couple of years ago I put The German Cookbook by Mimi Sheraton on my Yule wish list. I’m a lot more into cooking than my mom ever was, and my grandmother died when I was very young, so I never really learned how to cook any German food myself.
Then I put the book on my cookbook shelf in my kitchen with all my other cookbooks and didn’t really do much with it.
At least, until this week.
This week some kind of baking-madness came over me and I decided to try making, not just one, but THREE of the recipes for traditional German Christmas treats from this cookbook. I made Anislaibchen, Pfeffernusse, and Lebkuchen. Phew! And of course each of these recipes is huge, so now I have enough cookies to give some away to pretty much everyone I know and still have plenty for myself and my husband. (Especially since I also made a batch of not at all traditional peanut butter and oatmeal no-bake cookies because they are my husband’s favorite.)
I chose those particular recipes because I remember getting store-bought Pfeffernusse when I was a kid, and wanted to try homemade. There are several versions of Lebkuchen in the book, and the Nurnberger Lebkuchen looked like the recipe that was closest to those other, chocolate-coated cookies I remember. I also chose to make Anislaibchen just because it had only four ingredients that I already had on hand.
So how did they turn out?
The name means “anise drops” in English, and these are kind of weird. Anise is a love-it-or-hate-it flavor that I happen to love, so I don’t mind having a black licorice flavored cookie. The cookie itself is weird though. There are only four ingredients: sugar, eggs, flour, and anise seeds. You whip the eggs with the sugar for 10 minutes with an electric mixer (thank goodness I have an electric mixer and didn’t have to do that by hand!), and then mix in the flour and anise seeds, drop them by spoonfuls onto a baking sheet, and then leave them sitting out overnight! That’s the weird part. They’re supposed to dry out on the outside. Then when you bake them, the dried-out part forms a crispy, crackly crust over the soft inside.
Like I said, this week has been cold and rainy, so mine didn’t dry out as much as I think they were supposed to. The ones around the outside of the cookie sheet did form the crispy top, but not the ones towards the middle. Maybe I should have left them out longer to make sure they all dried enough, or maybe even put a fan on them to help with air circulation.
This name means “pepper nuts” in English. This is the recipe that had the most spice in it: citrus peels, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, cardamom, and black pepper. I couldn’t find candied orange or citron peel at the store, so I had to substitute just plain dried orange and lemon peel that I rehydrated with a little rum. They also have eggs, white sugar, brown sugar, ground almonds, “3 heaping cups of flour,” and “a generous pinch of baking soda.” That’s a thing that annoys me a little bit about this book. Baking is supposed to be precise! What do you mean by “heaping cup” or “generous pinch?”
These cookies were also left out overnight, and then it says to bake them at 300 degrees for 20 minutes, or “until they test done.” What does that mean? How do you test them? I ended up eating one to see if it was done, and it seemed like it was, I guess. Then when still warm, they are brushed with rum and rolled in confectioner’s sugar (I shook them in a Ziplock bag for that). I like the coating of powdered sugar better than the white icing on the store-bought Pfeffernusse. It’s pretty.
To my surprise, even though Lebkuchen is usually described as “German gingerbread,” the recipe in this book does not call for any ginger. Makes me think gingerbread is actually something different! This recipe has citrus peel, cinnamon, and cloves (along with eggs, sugar, a whole pound of honey, ground almonds, flour, baking powder, and black coffee), but no ginger.
I expected to end up with a cookie dough from this, but instead I got more of a cake batter that the instructions said to spread out into a jelly roll pan (I used a half-sheet pan), and then cut into bars when done and cool. So more like a bar cookie or brownie than something you roll out and cut with cookie cutters (like gingerbread).
The book had three different icing options: a white icing, a Lebkuchen glaze that has rum in it, and a chocolate glaze. I decided to do half with the run glaze, and half with the chocolate glaze.
I got really worried when I made the chocolate glaze, and I ended up with this really thin stuff. I put it on the Lebkuchen, and it was so thin that much of it ran off onto the pan. Once I finally got some to stick, I waited and waited for it to harden, and it still stayed wet and sticky. I was so sure I messed it up somehow.
But just like with the weird leaving-cookie-dough-out-on-the-counter-overnight thing, I should have trusted the wisdom of the ancestors, because I went and ate lunch, and when I checked them again, the chocolate had hardened up perfectly! The only problem is that it’s still thinner than I’d like, and I think that’s because I was supposed to have left the pan off the heat for a while longer to let it cool and thicken before trying to put it on. This was another place where the directions in the book were vague, and said to stir it off the heat “until a film forms,” so I guess I didn’t wait long enough.
Overall, I think I like the Pfeffernusse the best. They’re the spiciest of the three. My husband seems to like the Lebkuchen the best, which is less spicy and the chocolate and coffee gives it a mocha-like flavor. The anise drops would probably be better if I had let them dry enough, since I think the crispy top is the main appeal of them. They have the mildest flavor.
So that’s how I spent the beginning of Yule. I hope the gods and ancestors don’t mind that we’re not burning the Yule log until Friday night, instead of on the actual solstice, so my husband doesn’t have to go to work in the morning and can stay up late for that. I will use some of these goodies as offerings. I tend to use baked goods as offerings a lot. Considering the extra work that goes into baking something from scratch instead of buying it, it seems like a good thing to do.
And since I’m on a German food spree, I think for Friday night dinner I’m going to make another recipe from this book. Another thing I loved as a kid were German potato dumplings. My mom made them using a boxed mix, but the recipe in this book for Gekochte Kartoffelklosse sounds close to the made-from scratch version of what I remember. My mom once mentioned that you’re supposed to put a crouton in the middle of each one, but she never did it, so I don’t think I will either. I just loved the big slimy balls of starchy carbohydrate goodness! Yum! You’re supposed to eat them with meat and gravy, so I’m going to make German beer-braised pot roast to go with it, but I’m mainly looking forward to the dumplings. I hope I can at least make them as good as the boxed mix.