Friday, December 13, 2013

Cooking Up a Family Tradition: Mystery Artifact Revealed!

 As I mentioned in the first post, this object has special significance for my family, especially at this time of year!  I hope that some of you had the opportunity to come in and take a closer look at this week's Mystery Artifact, on display in a case near the museum stairwell.   If not, please come visit in the next few weeks - the object will remain on display until we close for the season on December 31st!

Lorelei and Joe were on the right track in guessing that this artifact was some sort of food mold, but Jenifer was absolutely correct in guessing that this object is a springerle press (pronounced "springer-lee").  So, Jenifer, who in your family makes springerles?

In my family, my grandmother is our springerle maker.  Her mother's maiden name was Elda Krueger, and our family's German cookie-making tradition comes from her heritage.  Springerle are traditional German Christmas cookies, usually flavored with anise seed (which tastes like black licorice) and impressed with a specially-carved rolling pin or flat mold.  You may have noticed the springerle rolling pin in our education collection while in the 1900's kitchen area of our Prairie Stories exhibit:

Springerle are unique in their creation in that after the cookies have been imprinted, recipes require they be left out to dry for 12-24 hours before baking.  This allows the dough to set, so that the pictorial impressions are not destroyed when the cookies rise during baking.   The square- or oval-shaped cookies can be painted with food dyes or tempera paints, and often were as traditionally they were used as Christmas decorations on tabletop trees.   

The molds often depict animals or pastoral scenes, although images taken from Biblical stories are also common. Antique springerle molds have become family heirlooms, and the oldest known mold dates to the 14th century. This website has a terrific library of pages detailing springerle mold collections held by private owners:

I would recommend you click through to the Mildred E. Jenson collection specifically, as it showcases three pages of beautifully carved antique molds:

For those of you wishing to try your hand making a batch of springerle cookies, here is a link to a Swiss website that offers both a springerle recipe and hand-carved replicas of antique molds (although the store portion of their website is in German, so you may need the assistance of a translator to shop):  If you wish to try springerle without investing in a mold, however, here is a company in my home state of Pennsylvania that sell both edible springerle cookies and springerle ornaments for the tree:
 If the thought of a licorice-flavored cookie does nothing for your tastebuds, they also offer lemon, orange, orange vanilla, hazelnut, chocolate, almond, and vanilla springerle.

Christmas cookies continue as a modern tradition that stretches back centuries. The first cookies were probably test cakes, baked with a small amount of the cake batter to test oven temperatures. Modern cookies have their origins in the spice trade during the Middle Ages, which allowed Europeans easier access to high-value food items including sugar and spices like cinnamon, coriander, black-pepper, and anise seed. Many traditional European Christmas cookies still include these flavors, like Dutch pfeffernüsse (“pepper nuts”) which are spiced with ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, and black pepper; or my personal favorites, German zimtsterne ("cinnamon star"), which are made with ground almond or hazelnut flour instead of wheat flour, are frosted with a meringue instead of icing, and traditionally included "exotic" flavors like lemon and cinnamon (and are delightfully chewy and delicious)!

Does your family have special holiday cookie traditions?  Do you have a favorite recipe that has been passed down in your family?  Please share your traditions or favorite types of cookies and treats in the comments section below or on Facebook. 

I'll leave you with this wonderful recipe from a late-18th-century cookbook:

"On Christmas Cookery -- To three pound of flour, sprinkle a tea cup of fine powdered coriander seed, rub in one pound of butter, and one and half pound sugar, dissolve one tea spoonful of pearlath in a tea cup of milk, kneed all together well, roll three quarter of an inch thick, and cut or stamp into shape and size you please, bake slowly fifteen or twenty minutes; tho' hard and dry at first, if put in an earthern pot, and dry cellar, or damp room, they will be finer, softer and better when six months old.” 
---Amelia Simmons 
   American Cookery:  or, The Art of Dressing Viands, Fish, Poultry and Vegetables, and the Best Modes of Making Puff-pastes, Pies, Tarts, Puddings, Custards and Preserves, and all kinds of Cakes, from the Imperial Plumb to plain Cake, 1796

1 comment:

  1. A few comments on Springerle. My family, too, made Springerle (pronounced spring -a-lee in my family). My grandmother made the very best, my father and my cousin's husband made/make them well too. And in Cincinnati, where I grew up, one can still purchase them at every bakery (of which there are many!) We have a mold that was given to my grandmother by a baker, because he was retiring and she did such a nice job with them.

    Springerles, should you try to bake them, will be somewhat soft and chewy the first week, but harden quite a bit after that. Most cookies before modern times were hard cookies, because wasting food ingredients on something was unthinkable. So... as Amelia Simmons says here, you can eat Springerle 6 months later if you like (although be sure to dunk them in tea or moisten them in an earthen jar first).

    Barb Oehlschlaeger-Garvey (Director of MGP and descendant from Stormers, Detmerings, Taborskys, Oehlschlaegers, Gartelmanns, Petersons...and the list goes on).