Luisa Weiss bakes Christmas biscuits
Almost everyone I know here in Berlin, young or old, heads to the kitchen to bake Christmas cookies in early December – even those who spend the rest of the year firmly on the other side of the house from the oven.
Advent Sundays are when friends and family come over for biscuits, instead of the usual cakes or tortes, with their afternoon tea or coffee. A generous assortment – a bunter Teller, or “colourful plate” – is usually served, a showcase of textures, colours and flavours.
It is also traditional to present beautifully packaged gifts of homemade biscuits to colleagues, friends and family. My assistant, Maja, makes a magazine-worthy bunter teller each year, with no less than 10 different kinds of cookie. One year, after having baked 17 different recipes, she had close to 2,000 biscuits stored in tins around her apartment!
German Christmas baking can be hard work. There can be a lot of steps, for which some artfulness may be required. But the payoff is worth it. A note on texture and taste: many of the recipes use a honey-based dough because historically, honey, not sugar, was Europe’s sweetener. Also, the dough often has no added fat. As a result, the biscuits are chewier and drier than you might be used to. The goal is for them to stay fresh for a long time in an airtight container and to be eaten with, or dunked into, hot drinks. A trick often used in Germany to keep biscuits soft and moist is to put a slice of fresh bread or a wedge of apple into the storage jar.
Hazelnut raspberry macaroons
These are gluten-free and will keep well, so feel free to make a double batch. Buy good-quality nuts and toast them before grinding – it transforms the flavour.
Makes about 30
230-290g whole unskinned hazelnuts
2 egg whites
¼ tsp salt
150g granulated sugar
150g raspberry jam
1 Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/gas 6.
2 Put the hazelnuts on a baking tray in a single layer and toast in the oven for 15 minutes, or until fragrant. Lay a clean linen dishcloth flat on a work surface and dump the hot hazelnuts on to it. Gather the dishcloth around the hazelnuts and rub them together until they are mostly skinned (don’t worry about removing the skins entirely). Let the nuts cool completely.
3 Line two baking trays with paper. Put the nuts in a food processor and pulse
until finely ground, but not so long that they turn into a paste.
4 Put the egg whites and salt in a mixing bowl and whip until frothy. Slowly add the sugar and continue beating until the egg whites have formed soft peaks. The sugar will not be completely dissolved. Fold in all but 25g of the ground hazelnuts until well combined. The mixture should be thick but should hold its shape when dropped from a spoon. Add some of the remaining hazelnuts if needed, folding in until well combined.
5 Using two small spoons, scoop out heaped teaspoons of batter on to the baking trays, leaving about 2.5cm between them. Put one baking tray in the oven and bake for 10 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove from the oven and, using the back of a teaspoon, immediately press a well into the centre of each cookie. Transfer to a rack. Repeat with the second tray.
6 When all the cookies are on the rack and are still warm, gently heat the raspberry jam in a small pan until liquefied and let it bubble for 30 seconds. Spoon a little bit of the hot jam into the well of each cookie. Let the jam set and the cookies cool completely.
7 Store in an airtight container with greaseproof paper between the layers. They will keep for up to 3 weeks.
Cinnamon-almond meringue stars
There may be no Christmas cookie more popular. I find that drying the uncooked biscuits overnight and then baking them briefly is the best way.
Makes about 55
3 egg whites
A small pinch of salt
200g icing sugar
300g finely ground raw almonds
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 Whisk the egg whites and salt with a mixer on a medium-high speed. Pour in the sugar slowly and whip for 7 minutes, or until the mixture is glossy and stiff. Measure out about 12 tbsp and set aside.
2 Fold 225g of the almonds and the cinnamon into the remaining egg whites. Continue adding the rest of the almonds until you have a firm, slightly sticky dough. You may not need the whole 300g. Wrap the dough in clingfilm and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
3 Line two baking trays with paper. Unwrap the dough, and roll it out to 6mm thickness between two sheets of clingfilm. Using a 4cm star-shaped cookie cutter, cut out the cookies. Dip the cutter in cold water every so often to keep the dough from sticking. Put the cookies on the baking sheets.
4 Using a spoon and a toothpick, spread the reserved meringue evenly over each star, taking care to drag it out to the points. Let the cookies sit at a cool room temperature for 12-24 hours. The meringue will be dry to the touch.
5 Heat the oven to 180C/350F/gas 4. Bake the cookies, one baking tray at a time in the bottom of the oven, for 3-4 minutes or until the meringue is set but still snowy white.
6 Remove the baking tray and put it on a rack. Let the cookies cool completely on the tray. Once completely cooled, store in an airtight container. They will keep for up to a month.
This recipe for hazelnut-flavoured shortbread comes from Maja’s Swabian mother-in-law. With six children in the house, she favoured recipes that could be made easily with the assistance of young helpers. These biscuits are relatively delicate and should be kept as dry as possible, so avoid storing them with other cookies and take care when handling.
350g plain flour
⅛ tsp salt
50g ground toasted hazelnuts
100g confectioner’s sugar
200g unsalted butter, softened
2 egg yolks
1 tsp water
2 tbsp pearl sugar nibs
2 tbsp finely chopped hazelnuts
2 tbsp finely chopped blanched almonds
1 Combine the flour, salt, ground hazelnuts and confectioner’s sugar in a large bowl. Cut the butter into cubes and work into the flour, adding one of the yolks as you go, until you have a workable dough. It should be on the dry side. Wrap the dough in clingfilm and refrigerate for an hour.
2 Remove the dough from the fridge. It will feel a little crumbly and dry. Knead it until it is smooth and quite firm.
3 Heat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Line a baking tray with paper.
4 Using a rolling pin, roll out the dough to a 17 x 23cm rectangle. Trim the edges. Using a sharp knife, cut the rectangle lengthways into 12 even strips. Quarter the rectangle widthways. Do not separate the pieces yet.
5 Beat the second yolk with the water to make an egg wash and brush it over the dough. Sprinkle the pearl sugar and finely chopped nuts evenly over the dough and, using the palms of your hands, press the toppings lightly into the dough to anchor them.
6 Using a spatula, transfer the individual batons on to the prepared baking trays. The biscuits won’t spread in the oven, so you can keep them close together. Bake for 15-18 minutes, or until the dough is biscuit coloured and the nuts are roasted.
7 Remove the tray from the oven and let it cool on a rack. The completely cooled biscuits will keep in an airtight container for up to 3 weeks.
One year, after having baked 17 different recipes, my assistant had close to 2,000 biscuits stored in tins around her apartment
▲ This is an extract from Classic German Baking by Luisa Weiss (Ten Speed Press), out now