Fancy holiday cookies are timeless. These confections, often made only once a year, bring sweet memories to countless generations. Yet some classic Christmas cookies are in danger of being forgotten.
Two such cookies are Polish angel wings, called chrusciki (pronounced khroosh-CHEE-kee), and German springerle (SPRING-er-lee).
It isn't that the recipes are so difficult or expensive; they just take time. Neither cookie is overly sweet; each relies on the clear fresh flavors of its ingredients.
Home cooks who learned the techniques and recipes from their grandmothers and mothers make these cookies for family and friends during the holiday season.
Kathy Hooker remembers her mother making chrusciki for her brother in the 1960s. "When he was in the service in Guam, my brother used to beg my mother to send these to him," Mrs. Hooker says. "He'd say, 'I don't care if they come in crumbs.' "
Each Christmas, she uses her mother's chrusciki recipe. "This is the one Polish holiday cookie that I picked up," says Mrs. Hooker, the owner of Essential Gourmet in Sylvania. The dough is simple: egg yolks, sugar, sour cream, vanilla, flour, baking powder, and salt. It's the technique that makes this fried confection a challenge. Mrs. Hooker divides the dough into three chunks, working with one at a time while keeping the other two covered with a damp cloth.
After rolling the dough into a 1/4-inch-thick rectangle rather than a circle (as for a pie), she uses a ruler to measure strips four inches long by 1 1/2 inches wide. "The thinner the dough, the quicker they burn," she says. Once the strips are cut, a one-inch-long slit is made close to one end. Then the long end is pulled through the slit to make what resembles a bow tie: It's like putting a button through a buttonhole. "Then you tug at the two ends (pulling each end away from the center)," she says.
Now it is ready to fry in three inches of hot oil, shortening, or lard (375 degrees) in a deep pot. Chrusciki puff up because of the baking powder. Each cooks in less than two minutes and is removed with a slotted spoon and placed on parchment paper. When ready to serve, the cookie is sprinkled with confectioners' sugar. Mrs. Hooker stores them at room temperature in a covered plastic container for up to one week. She redusts with confectioners' sugar if needed.
Polish-born Leokadia Czernikiewicz makes countless batches of chrusciki for family and friends, including co-workers at Bowling Green State University, where she is a cook. She came to the United States 20 years ago and remembers the cookie as a New Year's Eve favorite, with cakes more popular at Christmas.
When Ms. Czernikiewicz makes the favorite recipe, she gathers her daughter and son to help because there are so many steps in the process and she doesn't want the dough to dry out. "My chrusciki are very crisp," she says. She also uses rum or another form of alcohol in place of vanilla. "The alcohol gives flavor and keeps them from absorbing grease," she says.
Chrusciki are wintertime cookies. "High humidity makes them too soft," Ms. Czernikiewicz says, although she does make them for weddings year round.
Springerle are said to be the most traditional German Christmas cookies in The King Arthur Cookie Companion (The Countryman Press, $29.95). They have a simple dough of eggs, sugar, and flour, and are seasoned with anise and/or lemon. Because they have no butter, oil, or shortening, springerle can be very hard, and have been used for dunking in coffee.
Springerle can be made with a rolling pin, molds that feature hearts or Christmas scenes, or a cookie press. Molds and pins are available from mail-order companies or some cooking equipment shops.
Recently, Sue Moesser of Toledo called looking for a traditional springerle cookie that was not so hard. "I want to make it softer," she said.
In search of a "softer" springerle, I talked to PJ Hamel, principal author of The King Arthur Cookie Companion. "You don't make springerle soft," she said. "They are very hard and used mostly for decoration." The cookbook's recipe calls for letting the unbaked cookies sit at room temperature for 24 hours, then baking them in a 275-degree oven for 25 to 30 minutes.
Therein lies the difference between a hard dunker springerle and a springerle that is crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. There are many different recipes.
Before Lydia Stadel of Toledo died in 2000, her granddaughter Laurie Renz had learned how to make the 12 varieties of Christmas cookies the German-born grandmother made each year. Among them was the springerle cookie. "Nobody does this any more," the granddaughter says.
Not only are her cookies meant to be eaten, she uses the bigger forms like the nutcracker for bigger springerle that can be used to decorate a holiday gift. She displays the wooden molds as wall hangings year round.
"The first year I baked cookies at my mother's house," says Ms. Renz, who also bakes pfeffernuesse, coconut and hazelnut macaroons, and three kinds of butter cookies using her grandmother's cookbook written half in English and half in German. "I made four batches of springerle and they didn't rise."
The next year, she made the cookies in her own kitchen and after comparing Grace Sailer's springerle recipe with her memories of her grandmother's recipe, she came up with a perfected product. (Ms. Renz and Ms. Sailer are members of the German-American Club.)
"I make them all in order, starting with springerle and moving on to date bars," says Ms. Renz who takes a week of vacation to make Christmas cookies. "My grandma's friends get a box. I send to friends and family in North Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana, all who knew my grandma's cookies. I take them to work."
As for her technique, "I let the dough sit for six hours in the refrigerator. Then I cut out the cookies and place on a greased cookie sheet and cover each with waxed paper in a cool room," she said. (She estimates that she has 25 cookie sheets.) "I bake one sheet at a time in a gas oven at 300 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes. The cookie edges are hard but they puff up like a little pillow with a soft center."
She uses baking ammonia, which she buys at Cake-Arts Supplies, 2858 West Sylvania Ave. The springerle recipe in Joy of Cooking All About Cookies by Rombauer, Becker, and Becker (Scribner, $15.95) uses baking powder (see Page 2) and The King Arthur Cookie Companion recipe uses neither.
It would seem that a little leavening, less time sitting, higher oven temperature, and less baking time would yield a softer springerle.
"Some have made springerle a very complicated process," says Andrew Haas of Haas Bakery, 2306 Starr Ave., who started baking springerle last week. "You need a good 'skin' but they should feel dry and hard (when unbaked). Getting a soft inside is the process more than the recipe. Mine come out nice and soft."
He does use ammonia biocarbonate for leavening. "Mine sit for two hours. I do get a 'skin.' I've stuck a fan on them. If you let them sit 24 hours, you lose the inner moisture." He bakes his at 360 degrees for six minutes.
Whichever method you select, flour your forms and use greased cookie sheets.
"People appreciate the time that goes into these cookies," says Ms. Renz, who prefers using the molds to the rollers. "Because springerle are so rare, people enjoy it." For the home cook she advises, "have patience and keep at it. If it doesn't work out this year, try again next year."
Kathie Smith is The Blade's food editor.
Contact her at: email@example.com or 419-724-6155.