Four Classic German Christmas Cookies and a Boozy Bonus

During the last two years I've relied quite on bit on the "Christmas Favorites" section of Luisa Weiss' Classic German Baking while planning out our holiday party menu. Last year I made five holiday cookies from the cookbook and this year I made four: Spekulatius, Zimsterne, Nussstangen, and Lebkuchen.

The Spekulatius (the rectangular cookies topped with with sliced almonds in the photo below) are almond spice cookies that Weiss describes as nuttier, crisper, and lighter than their Western brethern (Belgian speculoos and Dutch speculaas). While there are specialty molds to make these cookies, Weiss provides a method to simply roll them out and cut them into rectangles with a knife. Making the dough is easy. You just mix together all of the dry ingredients (flour, sugar, ground almonds, ground hazelnuts, lemon and orange zest, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, aniseed, ground ginger, salt, and baking soda); stir in the wet ingredients (melted butter, heavy cream, and milk); and knead until combined. You roll out the dough into a rectangle; cut it into cookies with a knife; brush the cookies with egg white; sprinkle on sliced almonds; and bake.

"Zimsterne" literally translates to "cinnamon stars," so these cookies are supposed to be star shaped... But I took a little shortcut and made them round instead (they are the round cookies with white tops in the photo below). They are chewy, gluten-free cookies covered in dry, bright white meringue. The method for making them in a little unusual. You whisk egg whites with sugar until glossy and stiff, and set a small portion of the meringue aside. You fold ground almonds and cinnamon into the remaining meringue, yielding a sticky dough that you chill before rolling and cutting. Then you use a paintbrush to paint a thick layer of the reserved meringue over each cookie. The reason I made my cookies round instead of star shaped is that I figured it would be a lot more cumbersome to paint meringue into the points of star cookies than it would to cover round cookies. You dry the cookies at room temperature for a day and then bake them very briefly -- the recipe specifies only 3-4 minutes in a 350 degree oven, or long enough to set the meringue but ensure that it stays snowy white.
Nussstangen, or hazelnut-almond batons, are shortbread cookies cut by hand into thick sticks (the long brick-like cookies in the photo above topped with chopped nuts and pearl sugar). To make the dough, you combine the dry ingredients (flour, salt, ground hazelnuts, and powdered sugar); cut in softened butter; add an egg yolk; and chill the dough. You roll the dough out into a thick rectangle and cut it into baton shapes. Then you brush the cookies with thinned egg yolk and sprinkle on chopped hazelnuts, chopped almonds, and pearl sugar before baking.

The Lebkuchen are easy to make but require the most advanced planning. First, they use potassium carbonate/potash as a leavener, so unless you happen to keep that on hand, you have to track some down (here in D.C. I found it at the Cafe Mozart German Deli). Weiss says the dough needs a full 2-month rest before baking in order to achieve a rich and complex flavor, so I made this dough in early October. You combine the dry ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer (flour, homemade gingerbread spice, cinnamon, lemon zest, and cooca powder); add eggs and begin mixing with the whisk attachment; slowly add a warm mixture of honey, brown sugar, and melted butter; add potassium carbonate that has been dissolved in kirsch; and mix for five more minutes. Weiss says that the dough should be stored in a container that is not airtight so I put it in a Cambro with a non-airtight lid. I stuck it in the basement and sincerely hoped that the cave crickets known to inhabit the basement would not find their way inside. When I retrieved the dough two months later, I rolled it out, cut small gingerbread man-shaped cookies, let them rest at room temperature for a few hours, and baked them. Weiss suggests decorating them with nuts or candied fruits, but I left them plain.
My favorite cookie out of these four German Christmas cookies were the Nussstangen, hands down. They had a perfect buttery shortbread texture and I really liked the fact that they were so thick, so each mouthful was a hefty proportion of cookie paired with the perfect amount of chopped nuts and crunchy pearl sugar. They were sweet, but I think that hazelnuts pair exceptionally well with sweetness. I liked the Spekulatius and Lebkuchen but wouldn't make either of them again. The Spekulatius were not as crisp as I had hoped. The Lebkuchen were quite spicy and slightly cakey, which is not my favorite cookie texture. The Zimsterne seemed like they were undercooked in the middle -- and as the meringue on my cookies was on the verge of browning, I don't think that I could have baked them longer without getting color on the meringue.
Because I had a huge quantity of Lebkuchen -- I got 152 small gingerbread men from a double batch of cookie dough -- I decided to re-purpose some of the cookies to make Gingerbread Rum Balls for the party as well. Melissa Clark published this recipe in The New York Times as a twist on traditional rum balls, with gingerbread cookie crumbs giving the end product a "spicy complexity." Since I am not a fan of rum, I decided to use the maple cream liqueur that I picked up in Quebec last fall instead.

You make these balls in the food processor. You process together gingerbread cookies and pecans until coarsely ground; add powdered sugar, rum (or other liqueur), maple syrup, cocoa powder, fresh ginger, ground cardamom, cinnamon, ground ginger, and salt; and process until combined. I used a #60 scoop to portion out the mixture and got 47 balls, which I rolled in powdered sugar and stored at room temperature for a few days before serving (they are in the photo above). They were quite tasty, and the alcohol flavor wasn't too strong. They gingerbread balls went quickly at the party and I would make them again if I happened to have some extra gingerbread or gingersnap cookies around. And I expect that I will be making more of Luisa Weiss' Christmas cookies for our party next year!

Recipes: "Spekulatius," "Zimsterne," "Nussstangen," and "Lebkuchen" from Classic German Baking by Luisa Weiss, and "Gingerbread Rum Balls" from The New York Times.

Previous Post: "A Classic German Christmas: Springerle, Basel Leckerli, Biberle, Eisenlebkuchen, and Pfeffernüsse," January 10, 2018.