Monday, December 13, 2010

The Secret Ingredients Remain: The Same But Different

While a few things have changed with the German Christmas Cookies, such as when they are made, what they are topped with, and who makes them, some have not and that includes the secret ingredients. Christmas cookies, weihnachtsgeback, or more specifically the making of them, has been a tradition descending from the maternal side of my family encompassing now at least seven generations.

The farthest back we can trace this tradition, dates to the latter part of the 19th century and at a minimum, originated with my great-great grandmother who lived in Birnfeld, Germany. Her family owned a flour mill in a small rural town in the German countryside, a farming community where chickens, cows and families grew up together, a bucolic existence to be sure. Such charming, close-knit villages generally developed around mills and the services needed to sustain daily living. The abundance of flour gave rise to the creative formulation of recipes among the village women, one of which is my great-great grandmother’s recipe which endured through the previous 100 years or so in my family to this day.

Time passes.

My mother, who is the source of this information, was born in Heidelberg, Germany during World War II when everything needed for daily living was scarce. Food, clothing, money and housing. As a result, my great-grandmother, Maria Dorathea Firnschild-Meixner, lived with my mother and grandmother, essentially raising my mother, as my grandmother had to work to support the family. My grandfather was supposedly killed in the war, another story for another time. Christmases came and went. In spite of the war, somehow they found a way to make the Christmas cookies, regardless of the scarcity of food.

Tradition was, at that time, to make the cookies one to two weeks in advance of Christmas Eve, during the night when the children were asleep. A coal stove was employed for baking during my mother’s childhood and a brick oven during her great-great grandmother’s life. One batch was made and one batch only. The cookies were regarded as a treasure to be slowly savored. The cookies, I would say, resemble a shortbread style, not too sweet but delicate, their flavor improving with time as the Christmas event approached. They were topped with either a light, tangy, lemon glaze or a rich egg yolk wash and garnished with a single almond or pecan placed in the very center of the sweet, indeed a luxury at the time. The shapes cut out by the ancient cookie cutters that had been passed down through the family, came in the shapes of chickens, ducks, stars, hearts and circles.

Time passes.

During my childhood, the tradition changed somewhat but yet remained the same. Due to their popularity among our family and closest friends, one batch was not ever enough to satisfy demand and hence evolved into nine gargantuan batches of cookies. My mother spent long days making them to give as “heart” gifts to those we loved. Now the egg wash was not only garnished by nuts but by pearl sugar, infusing each bite with an extra measure of sweetness. Not only were the cookies graced with the delicate lemon glaze but now some had raspberry preserves gently sandwiched between two thin cookies and were sprinkled with a dusting of powdered sugar. The cookie cutters now included bells. The baking now began during the first week of December and was tackled during the daytime when we as children could watch and pinch pieces of cookie dough off when we thought mom wasn’t aware, but came to find out later, she knew.

Dough pinching. My favorite baking activity. I thought I was so clever, sneaking into the fridge at night to eat the cookie dough, my favorite, beating chocolate chip cookie dough any day of the week (in my humble opinion). The dough would take an entire day of it’s own to assemble, mixing the cold hard mass by hand, and would be put in the refrigerator to keep it’s chill until baking time, usually a day or two later. I would carefully unwrap a round of dough, pinch off a portion, smooth over what I thought was much remaining, and rewrap the goodie. By the time I was finished or sick whichever came first, it was plain for my mom to see, there was significantly less dough. She never said anything, though. It was our unspoken secret.

Time passes.

Now I make weihnachtsgeback for my family and friends. It is every bit as popular today as it was years ago. Some traditions remain yet change. My mom and I usually make seven batches, the first or second week of December, during the day. Now the cookie cutter collection includes leaves, a very large angel, wreaths, trees, and frogs, yes, frogs, in addition to the time cherished and worn, stars, chickens, ducks, circles, stars and bells. The toppings remain the same, for some things cannot be improved upon without sacrificing the nature of the cookie and that is indeed sacred to us. I prefer for the finished cookie to be a bit thicker and pale in color, my mom prefers them to be thin and a toasty-looking tan. Making these cookies is an art and took me, a good cook, years of practice to master. And believe you me, thicker and pale is the way to go!

The most beautiful, meaningful change occurred when my mom came to live with me eleven years ago, we now make the cookies together, as mother and daughter. Sometimes we have even been able to include my sisters who do not live local to us. Our ultimate dream would be to have my mom, myself, my two sisters who make these cookies also, my niece and great-niece all come together to make these family heirlooms, although we may have to rent a large kitchen to do it! It has now become a family activity, a treasured one we look forward to each year. Although we grumble about the mess, the hard work of mixing the dough (which my mom has succumbed to letting the kitchen aid mixer do the work since her hands are now arthritic), the hours spent on our feet, about whether thicker and pale is best or thin and darker, and how my angels always break because they are too big, each year the experience is priceless. For the record, now I eat all the dough I want not caring if my mom knows or not, still snitching from the fridge for old times sake to see if she notices! And yes, for the record, I still usually get a belly ache by the time we are finished.

The dough disappears, but what remains is the laughter, the being covered in flour, the beautiful results after two days of baking and the memories we create each blessed year that will carry on and sustain us in the generations to come, passing this touching, special, culinary legacy down to our children’s children. I have boys but hope someday my eldest, who enjoys his familial history and traditions, at least will show an interest in this great generational tradition or maybe his beloved will. In any event, my nieces will carry on.

The same but different. The shapes are the same but different, the timing is close to the same but different, we gobble instead of savoring the holiday treasures, the environment in which they are made has expanded, but the recipe remains the same.

Oh! I almost forgot! The secret ingredients! The flour may no longer come from my great-great grandmother’s mill but the secret ingredients that flavor the cookies with a special edible fragrance, remains the same: love, family, and tradition. They may be intangible ingredients but they flavor the pastry with a delicate but definable flavor that cannot be replaced with anything you may purchase at the grocery. And now, with the addition of the family creating these morsels of love together, we add laughter.

Stop by. Taste and see.