A serious, serious dream of mine is to visit an authentic German Weihnachtsmarkt, or Christmas market. Preferably on a snowy evening.
Until then, I find myself reverting to some comforting family traditions around the holidays.
We always hide a pickle ornament on the Christmas tree (whoever finds it is sure to have good luck). I only just now found out that this is an invented tradition, claimed initially to be a very old-school German Christmastime habit, as a marketing ploy. Oh, well. Doesn't make me want to find it any less!
There is always a spider web ornament on our tree, too. This tradition seems a bit more legitimate, truly originating in Germany, Poland or Ukraine. Finding the spider first is also a harbinger of luck!
Besides these German, and so-called German traditions, my Dad likes to make cheese grits on Christmas morning, adding a little bit of Southern into the mix. Other than that, it's pretty solidly about the German Christmas cookies. From gingerbread Lebkuchen, to peppery Pfeffernüsse to crisp, anise-laced Springerle, which has polarized tastes since the dawn of time (at least, I'm guessing so), the spread of German Christmas cookies is comforting in its sheer, buttery range of options.
Among my favorites (besides Springerle; I'm solidly pro-Springerle), are the Zimtsterne, or cinnamon stars. They're meringue-topped, almond-based cookies (great as a gluten-free Christmas option), and have a unique, sweet fragrance that only fresh-ground almonds can provide.
This recipe comes from the wonderful new book, Classic German Baking, which I ordered almost immediately after its publication. I also made Versunkener Apfelkuchen, or German Sunken Apple Cake, from the book -- that's the point at which I was hooked.
I'm pretty glad I didn't read the author's take on Zimtsterne before embarking on this dogged endeavour to fill at least part of my kitchen table with old-school German flavors. She notes that they are; "the fussiest cookie known to man."
First, I blitzed sliced almonds in the food processor, until I had about 3 cups of ground almonds, in total. I whipped up the egg white- and confectioner's sugar-based meringue in my KitchenAid, watching it come to glossy peaks at the bottom of the bowl.
Then, after reserving some of the meringue, I folded the almonds, now mixed with the cinnamon, into the meringue, then wrapped up to be left in the refrigerator for 30 minutes to an hour.
A satisfying lump resulted. While cool and pliable when straight out of the refrigerator, the dough will quickly become uncooperative if allowed to warm up (whether by over-eager hands, or some other method). So, cool your jets on the rolling, unlike me.
I rolled out the dough on some parchment paper. The recipe recommends it being rolled out pretty thin, but I found it easiest to leave them about 1/2 of an inch thick, which made the cookie-cutting process easier, and helped them to hold their structure, especially as I had some help when shaping them! Plus, the Zimtsterne I've had in the past have been pretty chunky.
Then comes the meringue. Using a pastry brush, I slowly (emphasis on the slowly) topped each cookie with a layer of meringue, taking care to match the nice star shape as closely as I could.
Initially, I thought the meringue was going to be too thick, dragging across the surface of the cookies and leaving them a mess, but it turned out to be surprisingly cooperative, glazing across the surface.
Then, the cookies are left out, from 12 hours to a full day (I erred toward the latter), for the meringue to solidify. Note how much the glossy finish changes from Day 1, above, to Day 2.
Then, the cookies are baked at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 3-4 minutes. Seriously, that's all it takes.
Besides grinding the almonds and the time needed to leave these cookies out, they're very low-maintenance. Not "fussy" at all.
Now, I have a little bit of a Weihnachtsmarkt in my kitchen, out on the table. This touches on the mostly German traditions in my family, where tins and tins of cookies crowd the counters in the weeks leading up to Christmas Eve (when, traditionally, presents are opened).
Now that I've got the German side covered, I need to do a bit of research into the flavors of the other side of my family... Hold on while I search for some French Christmas recipes... Perhaps one day I'll get really ambitious and go straight for a Bûche de Noël.
Frohe Weihnachten and Joyeux Noël, everyone. More to come!