These German Christmas Cookies Are On My Cookie Platter Every Year
It was my first Christmas Eve away from home. My new boyfriend had invited me to travel to Detroit to meet his family—a pretty serious step in a burgeoning romance—and I had already conjured up images of a storybook German Christmas, knowing that Rick's parents had each emigrated from Germany in the early 1950s before marrying and raising a family in the United States. My mind's eye saw fresh greenery draping every surface, wax candles flickering on the windowsills, and, of course, platters piled high with freshly baked Weihnachtsbäckerei—traditional German Christmas cookies.
The reality did not quite match the Nutcracker-esque pictures in my head. The people who would become my in-laws were welcoming, but I learned over the years that Lotte and Waldemar, who had grown up, respectively, in German enclaves in Poland and what is now Ukraine, were textbook examples of many immigrants, eager to embrace and assimilate to their new culture. I would also come to understand that growing up in war-torn Eastern Europe, which frequently required crisscrossing the continent by horse and wagon to find safe shelter, did not leave a lot of opportunity to learn the finer points of pastry making.
Lotte's kitchen represented, for her, the American dream. The pantry and refrigerator were filled with every kind of convenience food, from Pop-Tarts to Dijonnaise, and the few home-baked holiday goodies tended to be plain sugar cookies dotted with red and green sprinkles. Lotte's goal was not to spend hours standing over a hot stove, but to enjoy leisure time with her family, something that must have been in short supply during her childhood. Besides, living in the Detroit area gave Lotte access to many fine Eastern European bakeries that already baked every kind of Christmas cookie, buttery, flaky delights filled with fresh fruit jam or drizzled in rich dark chocolate.
Still, I couldn't shake the desire to make those cookies myself. While in high school, I had been inspired to start baking dozens of cookies every Christmas to give away to friends and neighbors, and I did learn then to make one popular Weihnachtsbäckerei—the Pfeffernüsse, a spiced cookie that packs a peppery punch. But, years later when I was a young mom, it was the discovery at a used bookstore of The Cooking of Germany, a cookbook published in 1969 as part of the Time-Life Foods of the World series, that gave me more insight into German Christmas culinary traditions and prompted me to make recipes that would give our daughter a literal taste of her ancestry. As the book's author Nika Standen Hazelton writes, "… without Hausgebackenes (home-baked things), Christmas wouldn't be Christmas—and without Christmas, Germany wouldn't be Germany."
The Cooking of Germany gave me detailed descriptions of regional German culinary culture, but it was Luisa Weiss' 2016 compendium Classic German Baking that provided technique. This was where I began to grasp the importance of crafting a bunter Teller ("colorful plate") filled with cookies of contrasting flavors and textures highlighting a wide variety of nuts, fruit and deeply flavored spices. The lengthy recipes were intimidating at first, until I decided to focus on the flavors and worry less about duplicating the recipes exactly—I am, after all, American, determined to put my own personal twist on time-honored traditions.
I added cardamom-laced cookies known as Kardamom Plätzchen to my repertoire, dipped in dark chocolate and decorated with homemade candied grapefruit. Commercially made marzipan became a base for Bethmännchen, topped with crunchy Marcona almonds, until I became confident enough to make a walnut marzipan for an espresso-laced version. When I want to churn out Christmas cookies on the fly, hazelnuts in multiple forms make for an easy thumbprint cookie packed with depth of flavor, while a tart lingonberry jam fills a pretty Linzer Torte sandwich cookie sprinkled with crushed freeze-dried raspberries.
The truth is that my Weihnachtsbäckerei might not pass the test in a traditional German home, but instead have become an ode to my mother-in-law: German in origin, American in sensibility. So even though I have never gotten a cookie recipe from Lotte, I still apply a lesson to my holiday baking that I learned from her—that is, the most important use of time is to spend it with the people you love.
- These German Christmas Cookies Are On My Cookie Platter Every Year
- This Nonprofit is Providing Native American Communities With Access to Nutrient-Dense, Culturally Affirming Foods—and It's Helping People Eat Healthier
- There's a Movement to Revitalize Indigenous Cuisines and Knowledge—Here's Why That Matters
- How the Comfort of German Potato Pancakes Helped Me Adjust to a New Life in Rural Pennsylvania