When it comes to holiday treats, classic German baking is a marathon, not a sprint. Some German Christmas cookies and treats require months of planning and process in order to deliver perfect treats during the month of December. Contributor Shauna Sever talks with Luisa Weiss, author of Classic German Baking, about some of her holiday essentials.
Shauna Sever: You're an American raised by an American father and an Italian mother. How did you come to write a book about classic German baking?
Luisa Weiss: My parents moved to Berlin when they were young and in love. I was born in Berlin. When their marriage ended, my father and I moved back to the US, and my mother stayed in Germany. I commuted between Boston and Berlin for my childhood and young adult years, ended up going to high school in Berlin, and I moved back there six years ago. Now, I’m married to a German. In the interim, I've become a food writer and a blogger. That's how I ended writing this book.
SS: What are the biggest differences between German and American home baking?
LW: German home baking is such a huge part of everyday life in Germany. Bakeries are everywhere. Everybody knows how to bake. If you look at recipes for the most typical cakes, cookies, and breads that people are making at home, they're are virtually unchanged from the way they were being made 10, 50, or 100 years ago. Some gingerbread recipes are hundreds of years old and haven't changed much at all. American home baking tends to be much more about immediate gratifications. That is why we have such incredible things like brownies and chocolate chip cookies available from the American home bakers’ canon. German home baking is more involved. It requires more yeast, so more patience, and a little bit more skill. Like when you're making strudel dough or braiding a yeasted bread. That's a little more old-fashioned.
SS: You do so many things in the book by hand. That was one of the things I noticed. There's a lot of wooden spoon in a bowl. It seems like a very simple kind of slower way of baking.
LW: I call German baking the ultimate slow food. It's very old-fashioned that way. There are a couple recipes in the book that do require a stand mixer, because the doughs are very wet and you need to beat them for a long time. But most of the recipes can be done by hand. A lot of the older women I know in Germany, who are incredible bakers, are still beating egg whites, cake batters, and whipped cream by hand. I modernized as much as I could. But many of the recipes like strudel, for example, you have to use your hands. You cannot make strudel with a machine, it has to be pulled out by hand.
SS: There are so many things to crave in this book. The stand out section for me was the Christmas chapter, because it seems like there's so much forethought and artistry involved with some of these recipes. For some of them, we’re talking about starting months in advance.
LW: German Christmas baking is incredibly important. It's a huge part of the culture. Some doughs require a long ripening time to get to the right flavor development. For example, the recipe for lebkuchen, which are old-fashioned German gingerbread. You make them two months in advance of when you want to start baking. If you want to have cookies in time for the first advent, which is usually around the beginning of December, you need to get your dough mixed and ready to ripen in early October.
SS: This brings us to the bunte teller. This is like the German version of the cookie tin?
LW: Close, but not quite. The bunte teller -- which means “colorful plate” -- is the offering, the platter that the host will present to his or her guests during an advent coffee round in the afternoon. Every Sunday in December is an advent Sunday. The tradition is that you invite people – whether it's family or friends – to come over to your house in the afternoon, light a bunch of candles, listen to Christmas music, and eat cookies. Ideally, you will have done enough baking in the weeks and months beforehand that you have a nice selection of cookies to put on this colorful plate to offer to your guests. The goal is to have a nice selection of different textures. You need to have a couple of macaroon type cookies, a couple of shortbread-y type cookies. You need to have cookies with meringue on top. You need to have cookies with chocolate in them. You need to have some dried fruit bread, like a stollen, or rum balls. So that there's a lot of different things to choose from, all of which only ever get made in the Christmas season. These aren't cookies that you ever see outside of December.
SS: The Christmas chapter is full of so many great ideas, but if you had to pick a short list of German Christmas greatest hits, what would they be?
LW: They would start with the zimtsterne, which are cinnamon almond meringue stars. They're little six-pointed star cookies made out of ground nuts. They’re topped with this very beautiful, snowy white drift of meringue, and baked until crispy/chewy at the same time. Basler leckerli, which are actually Swiss. They're honey-based spice squares, very sticky. A spiced dough – with candied citron and candied orange, and a very thin sugar glaze on top – that gets cut into little squares. Those need time to ripen, they get chewy and delicious. Springerle, which are Swabian cookies. They're snow-white, molded, and flavored with anise. You make them by pressing the dough into these gorgeous, antique wooden carved molds that have a whole array of motifs on them. They look like little works of art, but they taste incredibly delicious, too. There's so many more cookies to name, but those would be the ones that I think are the ones that I can't do Christmas without them. Of course, there's stollen, which comes from Dresden. It's a rich, raisin-stuffed bread that's incredibly difficult to get perfectly correct at home. I've discovered that christbrot is an easier version of it. It’s a soft and fluffier yeasted sweet bread with raisins and candied orange peel, covered with enormous amounts of vanilla sugar, and confectioner’s sugar. It's delightful. I would say that those are the non-negotiables of the Christmas season.
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Shauna Sever is the author of three cookbooks (Marshmallow Madness!, Pure Vanilla and Real Sweet). She is the voice behind the baking blog Piece of Cake. She's appeared on the Today show, Food Network, Home and Family, Serious Eats, Chow and Ulive.com. Her writing and recipes have been featured in O, The Oprah Magazine, Food and Wine, Bon Appetit, Fine Cooking, Family Circle and USA Weekend.