A Gift of Plätzchen
During Advent, families gather on weekends or for special occasions to bake these intricate and delicately spiced cookies.
My husband and I moved to Germany just before Thanksgiving, and I won’t lie: spending the entire holidays in a temporary living facility (TLF) — with a husband working long hours, no car, no household goods, no Internet plus a foot of fresh snow on the ground — was lonely. My only solace was the Angry Birds app and a tin of German Christmas cookies our TLF landlord gave us. That tin of tasty, homemade cookies went a long way to help me feel welcome in spite of an isolating situation in a new country.
Fast-forward a few years, and my co-worker Gen and I are invited by our boss Heather to spend the day helping her mother-in-law Christl, who is German, to make her annual assortment of those memorable German Christmas cookies, called Weihnachtsplätzchen or Plätzchen. While the cookies themselves are delicious, the invitation to help make them was the real treat. The process of making the cookies is actually a special Christmas tradition in Germany; during Advent, families gather on weekends or for special occasions to bake these intricate and delicately spiced cookies. Together, they share the labor of preparing the dough, cutting, baking, decorating and packaging the cookies into bags or tins for friends and family. Yes, the cookies are lovely to eat. However, the tradition of making the cookies focuses less on gift giving and more on spending quality time with one another. As the cookies take many hours to prepare, loved ones socialize, drink Glühwein and pass the time working together as a team to complete the baking task.
Our time with the Baiers is no different. We arrive with aprons in hand and are put right to work while Christl’s husband Willi pours us a crisp Sekt.
Christl drags out her heavy cast-iron, crank-handled grinder and clamps it to the counter, and we take turns making fine mill of almonds and hazelnuts, as nuts are key ingredients in most of the cookies. She does not speak any English, Gen and I speak very little German, but even with the slight language barrier, she demonstrates what she wants us to do, and we jump right in. And while she does follow a somewhat weathered book of recipes, periodically she narrows her eyes, pinches and prods, then grabs another handful of flour or a spoonful of butter to add if the dough doesn’t feel just right. Timba, a golden retriever, eyes the counter and eagerly offers her cleaning services if anything should drop to the floor. I drink a second glass of Sekt and enjoy the action.
Kneading the dense mound of dough takes a bit of muscle, so we all pound and rough it up as much as we can, then wrap sections in cellophane for chilling and rolling. Once we start rolling, we have to work quickly cutting and placing the shaped cookies onto the sheet, or they will melt or lose their shape when they bake. And, they need to be approximately ¼-inch thick. Whoops. Someone cut this batch too thick; we better start over. Blame it on the wine.
Decorating the cookies is also fun, but a delicate job. The fragile shortbread wafers can easily break as they are dipped into melted chocolate or smeared with raspberry preserves. Gen and I quickly gobble up any broken ones before Christl sees. Or did we? Hey, who took that photo of Gen eating the cookie? Uh oh. Evidence.
Before we know it, the day has flown by; it feels great to see that we made a few batches of Linzer and hazelnut cookies. The following week, Heather presents each of us a tin filled with Christl’s cookies. To my delight and shock, I see at least a dozen varieties of perfectly shaped cookies inside, as well as the not-so-perfect ones we made. Where did Christl find the time to make so many? Why are my cookies so crooked? Blame it on the wine.
That night after dinner, I share Christl’s cookie tin with my son and husband, and they pounce. While they enjoy a few, I realize that I want to start a cookie-baking tradition too, where we invite loved ones to make and take a variety of cookies while enjoying Glühwein, hot chocolate and each others’ company. And no matter where we are in the world, when we gather to bake cookies, I will think of that day in Germany, baking (and eating several broken) deliciously fragile hazelnut cookies with gracious hosts and that special “housekeeper,” Timba.
This new tradition has now become a part of my living scrapbook that documents our travels as a military family. And that is a beautiful gift.