Andrea/Cara here, musing today on cookies. First of all, it’s the season to think of platefuls of these delightfully delicious holiday treats! (What would December be without that tradition to add to the festivities . . . umm, and the waistline.) But I also got to thinking about how they are a balm for the spirit in any season. Admit it, a plate of warm cookies and milk (or cocoa) helps lifts the spirit in times of stress.
And I confess, I’ve had some stresses lately. My websites were hacked by some malicious l malware and it’s been a nightmare trying to them fixed—apologies to all of you who got the December Wench newsletter and couldn’t get to the link for my free chocolate recipes. The problem is now fixed, and you can go there now and get it. Just click here.) Trust me, I had more than a few late night cookie breaks!
At this time of year, I always pull out traditional family recipes for cookies. My mother was Swiss, and I have wonderful memories of her and my grandmother making their favorites from the home country. But before I tell you a little more about that, let’s take a quick look the history of cookies in our modern Holiday traditions.
Cookies—or biscuits as they were known in the past—came to Europe during Medieval times, and were inspired by foods brought back by the Crusaders from the Middle East, which featured spices like cinnamon, cloves, ginger and pepper, along with almonds and dried fruit. By the 16th century, variations had become popular throughout the continent. Lebkuchen, a honey-based flat cake, was a staple of the German states—legend says it was invented by the monks of Franconia in the 13th century. (Today it’s still a specialty of Nuremburg.) While in Scandanavia, pepparkakor—or gingersnaps cut into floral or heart shapes—were common. In France, bredala were popular.
Queen Elizabeth was said to have been very fond of gingerbread, and is credited with making the first gingerbread men, as she supposed had the dough cut into the shapes of her courtiers. Along with bringing the Christmas tree tradition from Germany, Queen Victoria and Albert also popularized a taste for gingerbread with the English public.
As I said, as a child our cookie platters featured Swiss staples and here are a few of my cherished favorites. My grandmother loved making springerle, which are anise-flavored egg and flour and yeast dough that rises, then have pattern pressed into their tops with carved wooden molds or rolling pins. (I still have my grandmother’s wooden molds, pictured here.) She also pressed anise seeds onto the bottoms for extra flavor and crunch.
Tirggel was also a favorite of mine, though we didn’t make them—they were sent from relatives. They are rock-hard biscuits made basically of honey and flour—and truly are leftovers from the Middle Ages because they were the type of staple that would last forever! They are always decorated with very traditional impressions, like knights. You break off a small morsel and let it soften on your tongue, and the honey flavor just fills your mouth.
But my special love is biber, a gingerbread flatcake filled with marzipan. It’s traditional to the Swiss canton of Appenzell, which is where my grandmother was born. Appenzell is famous for its biber. It’s also decorated with traditional wooden molds—the most common image being that of a bear, which is the symbol for the canton. (You can see a wonderful blog on the tools and process of making biber here. It’s not only a gorgeous work of art but it's also absolutely delicious! And I loved the spicy smells wafting out from the oven—cinnamon, clove, ginger, melted honey and molasses. To me they are the quintessential scents of the season.
Cookies helped get me through the website stresses. And as the days here in the northern hemisphere darken to their shortest length, curling up by the fire with a plate of warm-from-the-oven treats always brings back wonderful memories of childhood holidays with family and friends.
How about you? Are you fond of cookies? Do you have traditional recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation? What are your holiday favorites? Please share!