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.Print
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.