German Christmas traditions: Fröhliche Weihnachten!
Deutschland may not be “über alles,” but German Christmas traditions are deeply ingrained in American yuletide celebrations. Many are centuries old, such as festooning the house with evergreen boughs, a practice dating back to the Middle Ages (perhaps even longer, to pre-Christian times) and which eventually led to decorated Christmas trees. Until the advent of electricity, the trees were lit only on Christmas Eve by candles fastened to the branches. They were a major fire hazard, but I’ve always wished I could see one.
Then there are cookies. Christians around the world celebrate with festive foods – especially sweets – but cookies are an especially important part of German holiday traditions. Though many cookie recipes especially associated with Christmas may have been initially brought here by German immigrants long ago, they’ve become traditional for Americans of every creed and background.
German spice and honey cookies
The translation of these traditional German holiday cookies is “Pepper Nuts:” a suitable moniker for cookies that not only contain cinnamon, cloves and allspice, but also a dose of black pepper. The pepper makes these cookies an adult antidote to the sugary excess of so many other holiday cookies.
• Non-stick cooking spray or vegetable oil
• 3/4 c. honey
• 1 c. dark corn syrup or molasses
• 3/4 c. sugar
• 4 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
• 1 tsp. baking powder
• 1 tsp. salt
• 1/2 – 1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper, depending on your desired amount of heat
• 1 tsp. ground cloves
• 1/2 tsp. ground allspice
• 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
• 1 c. unsalted butter, OR unhydrogenated lard, OR 1/2 c. each, chilled and cut into bits
• Confectioners’ sugar, sifted if necessary to eliminate clumps
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
Spray two large baking sheets (or as needed) lightly with cooking spray or vegetable oil. For easier cleanup, line them with parchment paper, spraying or oiling the paper (not the sheets themselves). Set aside.
In a large heavy saucepan combine the honey, corn syrup and sugar over medium-high heat and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Reduce the heat to low and without stirring, let simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and pour into the bowl of a mixer or food processor. (It’s possible to do the mixing for this recipe by hand, but the dough is quite stiff and requires some strength.) Let the mixture cool until it is barely warm.
While the honey mixture cools, combine the flour, baking powder, salt, pepper, cloves, allspice and cinnamon. Set aside.
Add the chilled butter to the honey mixture and beat at medium speed (or process) until the butter is incorporated completely. Turn the mixer to its lowest speed and add the flour mixture a 1/2 cup or so at a time, pulsing if using a food processor. When all the dry ingredients have been added, turn the mixer to medium and beat until the dough is smooth. (The dough can be made ahead to this point, covered and refrigerated. Let it return to room temperature before continuing.)
Drop by teaspoonfuls onto the baking sheets, leaving about an inch or so between each cookie.
Bake for about 15 minutes or until the cookies are lightly browned and firm to the touch.
Remove from the oven and let the pfeffernüsse cool just enough to be able to handle them. While they’re still quite warm, toss them a few at a time in confectioners’ sugar to completely coat, then place them on a rack to cool completely. Makes about 3 dozen cookies.
I’m not a huge candy lover, though I am fond of pretzels dipped in chocolate. It’s the contrast of the salty pretzel and sweet chocolate that appeals. These German cookies are similar: Though the dough is intensely chocolaty, it’s barely sweet, which makes a nice contrast to the drizzled chocolate topping. Traditionally the pretzels are dipped in melted chocolate, which – at least for me – has resulted in lots of broken chocolate-covered pretzel pieces. They’re a bonus treat for the baker, but hardly suitable for a cookie platter. After some trial and error (and more broken pretzels) my solution was to drizzle the chocolate over the baked cookies, which not only tastes just as good or better, but is more attractive. The sprinkling of coarse salt is also my own variation, not part of the traditional recipe; leave it out if you prefer. Shaping the dough into pretzels isn’t difficult once you get the hang of it; practicing with a piece of twine or string cut to the same length is helpful.
For the dough:
• 1/4 c. unsweetened cocoa
• 3 T. hot water
• 1/4 c. sugar
• 8 T. (one stick) unsalted butter, softened
• 1 egg
• 1 tsp. vanilla
• 2 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
• 1/4 tsp. salt
For the chocolate drizzle:
• Good quality bitter or semisweet, milk or white chocolate chips (I use Ghirardelli and particularly like their 60 percent cacao bittersweet chips for such things as chocolate chip cookies, etc. Ghirardelli chips are available in most groceries.)
• Coarse sea salt for sprinkling, optional
In a small bowl, dissolve the cocoa in the hot water and set aside.
Cream the butter and sugar together with a mixer or food processor at medium-high speed. Add the egg, and beat until creamy.
Stir the vanilla into the cocoa mixture, add to the mixing bowl, and beat until thoroughly combined.
On lowest speed, add the flour and 1/4 tsp. salt and beat until the dough is thoroughly combined and smooth.
Shape the dough into a cylinder approximately 7 inches long and 2 inches wide.
Wrap in parchment or waxed paper or plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, about 30 minutes, or up to several days.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Slice the dough crosswise into approximately 1/2 inch rounds. Knead each slice between your fingers for a couple minutes, then roll each slice between your fingers into a rope about 14 inches long and about 1/4 inch in diameter. On a very lightly dusted work surface, drape the rope into a loop about halfway down. Twist the ends again, then bring them up, splay them slightly, then tuck the tips under the central loop, pressing gently to seal.
Place on an ungreased baking sheet (preferably lined with parchment paper) and bake for about 10 minutes, or until they are firm to the touch. Transfer them to a rack that’s been placed over parchment or waxed paper or newspaper and let them cool completely.
Place the dark, milk and/or white chocolate into small heavy “freezer” resealable plastic bags. You can use one, two or all three of the chocolates, but if using more than one kind, put them in separate bags. If you are just using one type chocolate, 1 cup of chips will suffice; if using more than one, at least 1/2 c. of each should be put in separate bags.
Microwave on low or the defrost setting for a few minutes until the chocolate is melted. Snip a tip off one edge of the bag(s), making a very tiny hole. Squeeze a little of the chocolate out on a plate or piece of paper to test the size of the stream, then drizzle the chocolate over the pretzels, swinging your hand over the rack. Repeat with the other chocolates, if using, either making the irregular stripes in the same direction or the opposite. Sprinkle with the coarse salt (if using) while the chocolate drizzle is still warm. Let stand in a cool/cold place (in winter an outside table works well) until the drizzled chocolate is firm. Makes 20-25 pretzels.
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