Around the holidays, receiving sweet treats from friends and neighbors can be really heartwarming.
But among the hundreds and more Christmas cookies, few are more fetching than Germany’s mold-pressed springerle, treats that have been a part of the Bavarian holiday spirit since the 14th century, and probably even earlier.
Historians in fact trace these cookies back to the Julfest, a midwinter celebration of pagan Germanic tribes, ceremonies that included the sacrificing of animals to the gods, in hope that such offerings would bring a mild winter and an early spring. Poor people who could not afford to kill any of their animals gave token sacrifices in the form of animal-shaped breads and cookies. Parts of these pagan practices survive still today in the baking of shaped-and-stamped Christmas cookies such as Lebkuchen, Spekulatius, Frankfurter Brenten, and the same Springerle.
The name “springerle” comes from an old German dialect and literally translates to “little knight” or “little jumper,” which people have guessed either refers to the jumping-horse designs imprinted on some cookies, or even the springy rising action of the dough itself.
In fact, before baking powder was common, bakers would use powdered, cooked deer antlers (known as hartshorn, or hirschhornsalz in German) as a leavening agent.
Alhough ammonium carbonate is preferred today, the ingredient list is still rooted in tradition and simplicity. Basically a white, anise-flavoured cookie, it’s made from a simple egg-flour-sugar dough, which bakers then chill before rolling and pressing.
And then it’s time for the imprints.
Although early springerle molds were likely made from stone or clay, some of the most prized carved designs were made from hard pear wood.
While the practice has since faded into a folk art, neighbors and families once carved their own designs, which included flowers, animals, and even family crests, and exchanged springerle over the holidays and also during other celebrations, for example to celebrate births, weddings and used as betrothal tokens.
The earliest carved wooden mold features, for example, an intricately designed paschal lamb while, during the 17th century, biblical images became a common theme and were used to educate those who couldn’t read or write.
Often, the cookies were used divided into four so that each window’s image could be part of a story.
After making their mark on the dough, bakers leave it to dry out overnight, a process that helps the cookies maintain their crisp designs, then lay it atop an anise-sprinkled baking tray.
When baked, the design portion of the springerle forms a drier, harder crust while the lower, moister portion of the cookie rises to form a small foot called a füßle.
Today, industrially-made stamps and molds come in many shapes, designs, and materials. Some chefs prefer using a special rolling pin that can be easily rolled across a slab of dough, imprinting it with that various designs that are carved into the cylinder. But some folks still prefer their family’s traditional molds, spreading the good cheer and a little neighborly competition as they hand out their holiday treats.
After the cookies are baked, the designs are sometimes enhanced with edible food colors, or even with tempera or acrylic paints, if the cookies are to be used as decorations.
Either way, exchanging springerle during the holidays was a common practice very much like we exchange cards or presents today.
Images from web – Google Research