I’ve always hesitated to write about Christmas cookies because, honestly, they’re kind of boring to read about unless you’re specifically looking for a recipe. And everyone already has their favorites anyway. But I figured Springerle are different because they’re so pretty and old fashioned. I know Springerle as a Southern German cookie, but Wikipedia says they’re eaten in Switzerland, Alsace, parts of Austria and Hungary too. Although they basically taste like an anise-flavored sugar cookie, the process for making them is different than a standard sugar cookie. And not just because of the beautiful molds used to shape them.
Traditionally baker’s ammonia, which is ammonium carbonate and is sometimes called hartshorn, is used as the leavener, although you can use baking powder instead. I ordered baker’s ammonia from Amazon, but saw it today on the shelf at the Lebanese grocery store of all places (anyone know of Middle Eastern recipes that use it?). It’s not expensive, which is good because it expires pretty quickly. According to the recipe I used, you dissolve it in a bit of milk. This part is stinky. Thankfully there is no ammonia taste or smell left in the cookies once they’re baked, but it does mean that you can’t snack on raw dough as you’re baking.
What also makes Springerle different is that you beat the eggs first, for a really long time. Ten to twenty minutes according to this recipe. Then you add powdered sugar and just a little bit of butter, followed by the rest of the ingredients. Some recipes call for anise oil, but I prefer to leave it out and bake the cookies on a cookie sheet sprinkled with aniseed. That way you know what you’re getting into and no cookies end up wasted on people who don’t like the flavor of anise.
Next comes the tricky part: rolling out the dough and molding the cookies. Here are my molds:
I should have added something for scale, but the big round one is about the size of a standard single-serving-size ramekin. So, big for a cookie. And you can see that the carving is quite different. This is important if you’re not a Springerle expert and you’re considering buying some molds. They’re expensive, so choose ones with deep carving, like the round one, and avoid ones like the rectangular one. Unless you don’t care what your cookies look like, in which case, why are you making Springerle in the first place?
The dough is surprisingly soft but not too sticky. Still, you need to brush the molds liberally with cornstarch or flour between each cookie. You’ll mess some up, but most will turn out ok. I used a pastry wheel to cut out the cookies. I never managed to get nice edges though.
Once you’re done cutting all the cookies out, it’s time to dry them, but letting them sit out for 24 hours or so. This sets the design, so that only the dough underneath puffs up during baking, and not the top.
Next comes baking. Here’s where instructions vary. Most recipes I found call for 10 to 15 minutes at 255°F to 325°F, but I’m not convinced. The goal is to dry the cookies out completely but not get any color on them at all. I failed at this part. Even at a low temperature, my cookies started to get some color before they dried out. Martha Stewart says 220°F for an hour, and I suspect that’s probably the way to go.
The cookies are supposed to be rock hard, and then you store them in a tin for a few weeks until they soften up and mellow out. They are German cookies, after all. Even if you don’t want to bake them until they’re hard, they taste pretty good after just a couple of days, once the anise flavor permeates the whole cookie. They also have a nice crunchy top, almost as if they had some sort of glaze on them. This is one of the advantages of using baker’s ammonia, because in my (limited) experience, you don’t get the same top if you use baking powder.