My Christmas cookie education began many years ago when my German friend Susanne invited me over for a pre-silly season cuppa and a chat at her house. Alongside the pot of steaming tea sat a large tin chockfull with a delightful array of smallish buttery, spice-laden cookies of many types – Susanne’s Weihnachtsplätzchen, or selection of traditional Christmas cookies.
It was the first time I had come across this lovely tradition of offering guests a selection of special biscuits during the holiday season – which is similar to the Swedish 7 Sorters Kakor (seven kinds of cookies) – and I instantly fell in love with the idea.
Indeed, there are many festive baking traditions the world over, each with a story to tell. Many of the European tales originate during the Middle Ages when exotic spices, such as cinnamon, ginger, black pepper and nutmeg, along with almonds, sugar and vanilla, were introduced from the East by the Crusaders.
Gingerbread, now synonymous with the festive period in many cultures, began as a crude combination of breadcrumbs, honey and spices that was stamped with religious designs and baked into hard slabs.
Over time the recipes became more refined and directly associated with Christmas rituals, and now numerous European countries have their own highly spiced gingerbread cookies, including lebkuchen from Germany, pepernoten from Holland, pfeffernüsse from Scandinavia, piernicki from Poland and pepperkaker from Norway.
Other descendants of the early gingerbread are the buttery speculaas – a Dutch spiced cookie that’s also popular in Belgium – as well as French speculoos and German spekulatius. All of these are traditionally stamped with intricate designs using specialty carved molds or rolling pins and baked to celebrate St Nicolas Day, they are little pieces of art.
By the mid-1500s, luxury ingredients such as butter or lard, nuts and dried fruits were being incorporated into once-a-year festive treats – the forerunners of today’s butter-rich and nutty vanillekipferl and spritzgebäck cookies, which are shared with joy throughout Austria, Germany and Switzerland.
For chocolate lovers, the agreeably sweet basler brunsli from Basel in northern Switzerland, and its German cousin Zimtsterne, are a more recent – and very welcome – addition to the festive cookie line-up.
The pretty melt-in-the-mouth spitzbuben, cut into decorative shapes and sandwiched with rosy red raspberry or redcurrant jam, are the darlings of Christmas cookiedom in Switzerland, Austria and Germany, while the Norwegian serinakakaer, and variations of this delightfully simple butter biscuit, are essential Scandinavian holiday offerings.
Variety really is the spice of life when it comes to filling the Christmas cookie jar.
Or creating gorgeous edible decorations for the house like these Polish honey-rye heart-shaped cookies, pierniczki.
When I’m done baking mine, I will of course be popping over to Susanne’s for some comparative research and very jolly taste-testing.
Photography, styling and food preparation by China Squirrel.
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Anneka's mission is to connect home cooks with the magic of baking, and through this, with those they love. For hands-on baking classes and baking tips, visit her at BakeClub. Don't miss what's coming out of her oven via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.