11 Authentic German Cookies to Complete the Christmas Feast
Mulled wine, Christmas markets and advent calendars: yet the German Christmas season would not be complete without Christmas cookies. A typical activity pre-Christmas is therefore baking Christmas cookies, gingerbread, and stollen, as it is the aroma of Christmas baking that ushers in the Christmas spirit.
Germany’s Pastry Culture: Tracing its Origin
The baking of Advent and Christmas pastries is a centuries-old custom that dates back to the Celts. Following Christianization, the custom remained, but was reinterpreted in Christian terms.
From the 18th century, cookie baking in Germany developed in parallel with the consumption of coffee, tea, and cocoa.
Particularly popular with the ladies of high society, small pastries were served at Kaffeekränzchen (coffee gatherings). Apart from shortbread, molded biscuits (Springerle) were also popular. Thus the flat-shaped cake changed from platz (from old French for place) to the diminutive Plätzchen (biscuit). Plätzchen was especially elaborately refined for Christmas.
Until well into the 19th century, all confectionery products were luxuries because sugar and other ingredients such as almonds or cocoa were very expensive. However, this changed when it became possible to obtain cheap sugar from domestic sugar beet. Subsequently, biscuits, the term Europeans use for cookies, could also be baked at home for special occasions.
With the founding of the first German cake factory in 1889, Europe’s first cookie assembly line was in place, which laid the foundation for the industrial production of fine baked goods.
Let’s round-up some of the most popular German cookies that you need to taste at least once.
1. Nürnberger Lebkuchen
Lebkuchen (gingerbread) are also called Pfefferkuchen (pepper cakes) because they contain pepper as well as numerous spices. The best gingerbreads are Nürnberger Lebkuchen, which can be bought everywhere in Germany during the Christmas season.
Luckily Nürnberger Lebkuchen are now also sold internationally in supermarkets, specialty stores or even online on Amazon.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, gingerbreads made of honey dough were dry pastries decorated with contemplative pictures. Their purpose was more for admiration than consumption.
As Nuremberg was a free imperial city at the center of European spice trade routes, the idea arose of refining the dough to make the gingerbread more aromatic. Thus, these rare and precious ingredients not only gave rise to a new type of pastry, but also to a new profession, that of the Lebküchner (gingerbread maker).
Experienced gingerbread makers left barrels of flour, honey, and leavening agents to mature for years until the dough could be processed into gingerbread. It all changed when cheaper factory-made gingerbread came on the market in the 19th century.
Today, there are many varieties of gingerbread. The best known is Elisenlebkuchen (Elisen gingerbread). It consists only of nuts, eggs, honey, and spices – flour is not allowed! There is a legend about this special gingerbread.
It is said that, in 1720, a desperate gingerbread maker developed them for his dying daughter, Elisabeth. Consisting only of hazelnuts, honey, and the best spices, after eating them, the child recovered and the gingerbread was named after her.
For many, there is no more Christmassy cookie than Zimtsterne (cinnamon stars).
No one knows the exact origin, but Zimtstern was first mentioned in writing as early as 1538. Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio allegedly served the pastry to the German Emperor Charles V during a visit. However, it was almost another 200 years before Zimtsterne were found in German baking books, because at that time cinnamon was considered the spice of the super-rich.
How did the Zimtstern get its name and star-shaped appearance? That has not been passed down, but most likely it represents the Star of Bethlehem, which is why you find Zimtsterne at Christmas.
Vanillekipferl (vanilla crescents) began as a Christmas cookie during the German-Austrian-Bohemian Empire.
The spelling varies from Kipferl to Gipfel. Gipfel is more of a south-west German expression, while those in Austria and Bavaria call it their typical Kipferl. Both refer to the crescent shape, and they are mostly rolled and shaped by hand and dusted with icing sugar.
The Vanillekipferl shape was first mentioned in writing in the 12th century, an influence of the occupation of Vienna by the Turks. It is also worth mentioning that ingredients like vanilla could almost be weighed in gold at that time, just like sugar and salt.
This suggests that Vanillekipferl could not have been a pastry of the common people at that time. It was only with the invention of vanillin at the end of the 19th century that the Vanillekipferl found its way into bourgeois households.
4. Aachener Printen
Aachen is not only famous for its imperial cathedral, where Emperor Charlemagne is buried, but also for its Aachener Printen, which may only be produced locally and in five neighboring towns.
Printen were originally known as religious image breads, Couques de Dinant, from the Belgian town of Dinant. In the 15th century, many Belgians moved to the region around Aachen for political and economic reasons and brought the tradition of making gingerbread with them.
Since then, it has been impossible to imagine the Christmas season without the brown, shiny cookie with its tart-sweet taste.
The dough, made from flour, honey and various spices, is also called either gingerbread, pepper cake, spice cake or honey cake.
From Aachen’s neighbor, the Lower Rhine and Holland, comes another Advent specialty, namely Spekulatius (speculoos).
The name is traced back to the Latin word speculator, which means observer in German. However, speculator was also the Latin name for a bishop in the early church, Spekulatius, which leads us to the bishop Nicholas of Myra, St. Nicholas, whose name day is celebrated on 6 December.
To commemorate the bishop’s benevolent deeds, people baked the legend of St. Nicholas as picture stories in relief with shortcrust pastry. This led to the old bishop’s title, speculator, as the name of the cookie.
Nowadays, Speculatius is one of the best-known cookies and is characterized in particular by its dry, yellow shortcrust pastry with an intense flavor of cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon.
With its shape and white icing sugar, Christstollen symbolizes the Christ Child wrapped in swaddling clothes. A more far-reaching interpretation suggests that Christstollen is a pastry made in memory of the children murdered by King Herod.
This fits in with the fact that in some regions Christstollen may only be cut on 28 December, the day of the innocent children.
Stollen was first baked in Naumburg on the Saale around 1330. It was brought to Dresden around 1400 as a Lenten pastry. The ingredients were correspondingly meager: flour, yeast, water, and rapeseed oil, the only permitted fat.
The story goes that Elector Ernst of Saxony (1441-1486) and his brother Albrecht petitioned Pope Innocent VIII for permission to use butter instead of rapeseed oil as an exception. From then on, this was applied generously, and, thanks to the rich ingredients, Christstollen developed from a meager Lenten pastry to a sumptuous festive cake.
Spitzbube (scoundrel) is a regional term for Linzer Auge, which is mainly found in Switzerland but also in Bohemia, southern Germany, Iceland, Austria, and South Tyrol. The holes often form a face. Unlike the Linzer Auge, however, the Spitzbuben do not contain egg yolks.
By contrast, the name Johannes-Plätzchen is most likely due to Johannes von Redsburg. As a result of the Thirty Years’ War, famine broke out in Europe between 1618 and 1648. The story goes that master baker, Johannes von Redsburg, baked sweet bread that was quick and cheap to prepare, spread it with jam and gave it to the hungry.
The origin of Kokosmakrone (coconut macaroon) is thought to be in Italy. The location on the Mediterranean Sea did not allow for the cultivation of coconuts, but it did ensure the exchange of goods with other countries.
As a result, Italy benefited very early on from fruits and other goods that could not be found on the European continent.
Macaroons are a firm favorite in Italy. Kokosmakronen spread particularly quickly because the basic ingredients that are cheap to buy. Coconut flakes, sugar, and egg white are the tried and tested ingredients that are traditional in Germany, though they can also be baked on a flat wafer if desired.
Other recipes have been modified over the years. There are Kokosmakronen coated with chocolate, for example, and those made with marzipan or almond slivers and a little lemon zest for a special touch.
Editor’s Note: Check out our article on Italian Christmas cookies to learn more about the most popular holiday pastries in the Italian peninsula.
Spritzgebäck is one of the best-known cookies. It is a tea cookie made with soft shortcrust pastry that is shaped with a piping bag.
Spritzgebäck include Spritzkringel (loops), Bärentatzen (bear paws), flaming hearts, and letter shapes (“S” cookies).
They are quite easy to make and you can use different shapes or glazes to give the Spritzgebäck whatever shape you like. The dough can also be refined with orange or lemon zest.
10. Anisplätzchen oder Springerle
Anisplätzchen (aniseed cookies) and Springerle are often used interchangeably and can also be called Anisbrötli or Eierzucker. While the Anisplätzchen are piped onto the baking tray with a piping bag to form small round cookies, Springerle are more of a picture cookie.
In southern Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Alsace, and Hungary, this cookies has been known and loved for a long time.
The name Springerle probably comes from the fact that one of the most popular motifs was and is a Springer (horseman). The origin of Springerle cannot be dated exactly, but Springerle molds and models made of stone, metal, ceramic, and wood have been found dating back to the Middle Ages.
Basically, Springerle originated from church bakeries and the earliest finds of models feature Christian motifs. It was only between the 17th and 18th centuries that secular motifs became acceptable, starting with heraldic coats of arms, then symbols of luck, love, fertility, and magnificent horsemen or chic ladies with loose dresses.
Alongside the Frankfurter grünen Soße, Bethmännchen are probably the best-known specialty of the city of Frankfurt am Main. They are marzipan pralines decorated with almonds.
While marzipan from Germany has long enjoyed a worldwide reputation and is inseparably linked with the city of Lübeck and the name Niederegger, marzipan was not invented in Germany. It was invented hundreds of years before Niederegger’s lifetime, in the Orient.
According to legend, Bethmännchen were invented in 1838 by the Parisian confectioner Jean Jacques Gautenier, who was head chef in the house of the banker and councilor Simon Moritz von Bethmann, at the beginning of the 19th century.
The councilor’s family chef, Bethmann, created these marzipan balls to go with tea and topped them with three almonds, representing his three sons.
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