A thinly crisp, heavily spiced celebration of a German Christmas tradition.
By Amanda Marsteller
Treasures can often be stowed in forgotten places. My family recently uncovered my great-grandmother’s Spekulatius molds in a long-shuttered cardboard box, and with their reemergence after years unused, I was able to connect with a very German, and very festive tradition. Spekulatius is a classic German Christmas cookie, known for its depth of spices including cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and cardamom. The cookies have always been made using sturdy, carved wooden molds that bear ornately detailed figures like animals or costumed men and women. It is the beautiful molds that bear the magic in these cookies, and using them to craft intriguing little characters is a way of paying tribute to the past, as the process is rather difficult, requiring a good smack of elbow grease and equal parts patience to achieve the sacred and crisply browned results.
It is thought that the name Spekulatius might come from the Latin word “Speculum,” for mirror, as the carved molds impart a mirror image onto the cookie dough. These molds are still widely sold in German Christmas markets, although they would undoubtedly be less popular in America because of the effort required in successfully molding the dough, as opposed to using modern cookie cutters and stamps. However, this layer of difficulty is also part of the cookies’ charm; they are native to the Christmas season, when a little extra toil in the kitchen is warranted. My mother told me that she can remember my grandmother and great-grandmother making these cookies together, flouring the molds, rolling the dough out thinly over top, and thwacking and rapping them against the tabletop to force the impression-laden dough back out. So as I tapped and walloped the molds against my own table many years later, I felt a very certain thrill in this quirky process, albeit with a few mutterings of frustration towards my dough. While sprinkling flour may have worked for my family before me, I found it almost impossible to shake the cookie dough out intact without first spraying the molds with a thin layer of cooking oil. That was my Spekulatius salvation.
Also, I found that as the dough is so buttery and sticky, it is imperative to rest and chill it overnight to allow the flavors to mingle and make the dough more firm and manageable. Once the dough relinquishes its fervent hold inside the mold, it is then necessary to trim away the excess with a sharp knife, a delicately detailed process. Perhaps this is what I find so fascinating about these cookies, as they require such a wide range of physical emotions, first violence in their sticky unmolding, then tender concentration as you trace the characters into doughy life. And once baked, they should be rather thin and crisp, with the speckles of spices flowing visibly throughout. There is more than one variety of Spekulatius aside from the spiced version; there are also recipes for Almond and Butter Spekulatius, with the dominant flavors in the name. However, the spiced version is the most authentic, so nothing else would do upon baking my very first batch of Christmas Spekulatius on my own. I hope I would’ve made my German ancestors proud as I stood tapping away at their cookie molds, celebrating our very personal and edible heritage, in the fashion they once did.
- 1 stick butter
- 1 egg
- pinch salt
- 1 cup flour
- ½ cup brown sugar
- 3 tablespoons almond flour
- 3 teaspoons cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1 teaspoon allspice
- ½ teaspoon ground cloves
- 1 tablespoon milk, plus more for glazing
- Mix the butter, egg, and salt together in a large bowl.
- Add half of the flour and all of the rest of the ingredients to the butter bowl, mixing everything together briefly.
- Add the rest of the flour in and knead gently to form a rather sticky dough.
- Cover the dough with plastic and let it rest in the fridge overnight or for 24 hours.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
- Line a baking sheet with parchment and place it in the fridge to chill.
- Keeping the dough in the fridge, remove a chunk of dough large enough to cover an individual mold.
- Spray the mold with cooking spray or scatter flour over top.
- Place the dough over a mold shape and press down to cover the whole area.
- Roll the dough firmly down into the mold with a rolling pin to a thin layer, preferably with very little sticking above the mold depression.
- Trim some of the excess dough away from the edges so that the dough pops out more easily.
- Tap the top of the mold firmly against the tabletop until the dough falls out.
- With a sharp knife, trace around the edges of the molded cookie until all the excess dough is removed.
- Place the molded cookie on the baking sheet in the fridge and repeat this process until all dough is used.
- Once all cookies are molded, allow them to rest in the fridge another 30 minutes to chill and maintain their shape.
- Lightly brush the cookies with a thin layer of milk to give them a sheen.
- Bake in the oven for 12-15 minutes or until evenly browned and crispy.
Amanda is an associate producer in food television and editor of mobile culinary apps. While new recipes and restaurants enrich her everyday eating, she finds a certain thrill in exploring the public library's historic menu collection and reveling in the dishes of days gone by. With the Brooklyn Bridge in view, she believes that her borough is one of the most exciting locales to experience food, in both the present and the past. She also pens a blog called The Choy Luck Club, in which she shares the bounty of community-supported agriculture.