Sometimes you want something a little different from the usual run of Christmas cookies. These fit the bill nicely.
Germany has a long tradition of spice-based cookies / bikkies, the most famous probably being the ginger-and-cinnamon-based lebkuchen that first start turning up in recipe books in the 1500’s and have since proliferated all over that part of the world in staggering variety. (A very basic lebkuchen dough, for example, is what’s usually used for the construction of gingerbread houses.) And there are some times of year in central Europe when escaping from lebkuchen seems like an impossibility.
Yet there are cookies in the region that share the same general culinary DNA but diverge in interesting ways. These simple brown biscuits are one sort. There’s no ginger in them at all — which by itself is a touch unusual, gingerbread having so generally overrun the holiday-baking landscape — but their spice quotient is very high, and their aroma gets significantly stronger over time. Opening a tin of them even after just a day or so sealed up lets a cloud of sweet dark fragrance into the air, after which it’s impossible to walk away without eating two or three. Or more. If not quite a lot more.
This is not a same-day cookie: it requires a stay overnight on the kitchen counter, wrapped up, before it’ll be ready to roll out, cut out and bake. Also, due to its northern heritage — it comes from Scheswig-Holstein — this recipe calls for treacle (a.k.a molasses), for depth of flavor, and lard, for additional body and crispness. (If you have trouble getting your hands on lard, you can substitute other solid fats like [UK] Stork or “white fat”, or [US] Crisco, or even butter: but lard works best.)
Ingredients and method under the cut.
- 65g butter
- 65g lard or other solid shortening
- 125g treacle / molasses
- 125g sugar (brown sugar if you prefer: I used demerara when baking these and it worked very well)
- 225g plain / all-purpose flour
- 50g corn starch / cornflour
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg
- 1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- Grated rind of 1 lemon
- 1 tablespoon candied orange peel, finely chopped
- 40g blanched almonds, finely chopped or ground
First of all, warm the butter, lard, treacle and sugar together over a low heat until all the fats have melted and the sugar has dissolved in them. Once the sugar is dissolved, remove the mixture from the heat and allow to cool for a few minutes.
Assuming that you’re using a mixer for this process, when it’s a little cooled pour the melted fat / treacle / sugar mixture into the mixer’s bowl and leave it to its own devices for a little longer. Meanwhile sift together the dry ingredients into a different bowl. Start the mixer going and add the dry ingredients to it a spoonful at a time. Then stir in the additions.
Depending on the liquid absorbent qualities of the flour you’re working with, the result at this point may be anything from an extremely thick batter to an extremely soft dough. The recipe we’re working with here states that “the dough will be very soft but should not stick when handled. If it is sticky, add just enough flour to keep it from sticking.” This was the case when I baked this first, and I had to add nearly another 100g of flour to get it to the non-sticky stage where it actually resembled dough. So don’t panic about needing to do this. On the other hand, if you find that your result is too dry, add warm water tablespoon by tablespoon until you get a soft dough.
When the dough is the right consistency, form the dough into a flat round and wrap it in plastic wrap. Leave it overnight at room temperature: don’t refrigerate. (Doing so will impair the cookies’ rise.)
The next day, preheat the oven to 350F / 180C. Divide the dough into two pieces, Lightly flour your baking surface and roll the dough out very thin (1/8 inch thick is about right: much thinner than that and it’ll start to tear.) A note in passing: this dough can get fairly tough if you’ve added much flour to it past what the recipe officially calls for. Don’t panic about this either. By the time I got mine out to 1/8 inch think, it looked and felt like a sheet of leather, and regardless of this, everything turned out fine.
Cut out the rolled-out dough into festive shapes, using whatever cookie cutters you prefer (shapes like hearts, stars, crescents , rounds and pretzel-shapes are favored on these biscuits’ home turf). Place on buttered and floured baking sheets. (If you’re working on a silicon baking surface as I was, you needn’t bother with treating it any further.)
Bake for about 12-15 minutes or until the edges of the cookies have shrunk and rounded a bit, and the biscuits have just begun to change color. You’re going to need to keep a close eye on the first few batches to evaluate how long your oven takes to get them to this point. The baking temp is a bit low to start with, in order to keep the high sugar content from predisposing them to burn, but the about-to-color point in the baking process can sneak up on you pretty quickly, so keep your eyes open.
Remove to a wire rack to cool. When they’re finished cooling, get them into a biscuit tin or tightly sealed container as soon as you can. The original recipe suggests that you bake these as much as a few weeks in advance and store them tightly sealed to allow the fragrance and flavor to intensify. Judging by how this starts to happen within just a couple/few days of a bake, this seems like a great idea if you have the time.