Picture the scene: Christmas music blaring from the radio, it’s snowing outside (well, more likely raining, but one can hope…), the air is heavy with vanilla and cinnamon, and the scent of fresh cookies is wafting through the house. It must be December.
Baking cookies is a part of Christmas in many cultures, but having grown up and lived in both the UK and Germany, for me it’s the Germans who have made this tradition a national pastime in the run up to Christmas. There seems to be a much bigger emphasis on Advent in Germany than in the UK. People coming together to celebrate the four Advent Sundays, and the first of Advent is also when many Germans bake their first batch of Christmas cookies, or ‘Weihnachtsplätzchen’ as we call them. It’s always been a tradition in my own family - something I vividly remember doing with my mum as a child, and that I now do with my own boys. No sooner has the first Advent candle been lit, then we get out our tin of special Christmas cookie cutters. It’s a tin my mum gave me when I left home, filled with an assortment of cookie cutters for baking my first Weihnachtsplätzchen away from home. The same cookie cutters I remember from those childhood days - a moon, star and heart, a tree and an angel, a bell and a lucky mushroom. These have now been joined by other shapes that my boys and I have collected over the years.
The joy of Weihnachtsplätzchen lies in the ritual of baking as much as the eating. On the morning of the first of Advent we’ll get our cookie doughs ready, which have to rest in the fridge for a while. The boys like to join in with the measuring, the mixing and the kneading. Later in the morning we’ll do the rolling and the cutting out. I think fondly back to the days when the boys still needed my help, big hands closing over sticky little fingers as we rolled the dough out together. Just like my mum used to do with me. Now they want to do it all themselves. There’s always a bit of squabbling over who gets to use which cookie cutter shape first, but somehow we manage to fill the baking trays without any major falling out. And there’s always plenty of dough that finds its way into little mouths, instead of on to the trays! The cookies don’t take long to bake, but they need to fully cool down before we can decorate them. Personally, I like them best plain or with a simple egg glaze, but of course the boys want to cover them in icing and sprinkles. It’s part of the fun.
Come the afternoon, we always have plates full of freshly baked Weihnachtsplätzchen to eat for afternoon tea, sitting around our Advent wreath. Each week another candle gets lit, up until Christmas when the lights on the tree would traditionally go on. Hardly anyone I know in Germany puts up their tree before Christmas itself - though living in the UK now with a British husband, we compromise and usually get our tree halfway through December.
As well as our cookie cutter creations, we also bake Vanillekipferl every year - melt in the mouth, vanilla flavoured crescents which regularly feature in the Top Ten of Germany’s favourite Weihnachtsplätzchen. This involves taking bits of dough, rolling them into small sausage shapes, and bending them into crescents. It’s a little more repetitive than cutting out different shapes, but the boys still like to help with it - probably because they can sneak bits of cookie dough to munch on! We use a recipe that my mum handed down to me. She in turn got it from my grandmother, from whom we would always receive a tin of Vanillekipferl every year without fail, until she became too frail to bake.
I’d like to leave you with our family recipe for Vanillekipferl. Although my boys love baking the cookie cutter Weihnachtsplätzchen the most, it’s the Vanillekipferl everyone in our house loves eating the most - last year we baked them three Sundays in a row! Oh, and you only every bake these in December, never ever during the rest of the year. It’s an unwritten rule.
Recipe for Vanillekipferl
(makes two trays of cookies)
200g plain flour*
80g icing sugar, plus extra icing sugar for dusting
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
2 egg yolks
80g ground almonds
150g soft butter
*You can bake these with a plain gluten-free flour mix, though they will be a little more fragile and lose their shape a little. I would recommend adding a pinch or two of xanthan gum if your gluten-free flour does not already contain some.
In a mixing bowl, quickly mix all the ingredients into a smooth dough with your hands.
Wrap the dough in cling film - on an eco-friendly alternative - and leave it to rest in the fridge for 1 hour. Don’t leave it too long or it will go rock solid!
Pre-heat the oven to 180°C (or 160°C for a fan oven).
Tear off little pieces of the dough, roll them into little ‘sausages’ about 6cm long and 1.5cm thick, and bend them into crescents.
Place the crescents on two baking trays lined with greaseproof paper and bake each tray for 12-15 minutes until golden.
Leave the cookies to cool for at least 5 minutes. Once the cookies have started to cool down but are still a bit warm, dust them with extra icing sugar (if they are too hot the sugar will just melt, if they have cooled down too much the sugar won’t stick).
Leave the cookies to cool completely before attempting to move them, especially if you have used gluten free flour, as they are very fragile whilst still warm.
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