Anyone who knows me knows that—in stereotypical American fashion—I identify strongly with my European heritage, especially during the holiday season when lots of old traditions are dredged up each year. I’m German American. I am aware that many native-born Germans turn up their nose at Americans claiming German ancestry, but I’d like to think I have good reason to identify with it. I speak German. I cook German food. My parents sang German lullabies to me when I was little. I consider “German American” to be a separate identity from “German”—I don’t have German citizenship, and I’m well aware that Germany has undergone massive cultural upheaval during the last century or so, which means the German culture of my grandparents is not the same culture found in Germany today, but it’s a distinctive culture nonetheless.
I also recognize that there’s a sort of cultural muddling that comes with being part of any immigrant family. It’s not always 100% clear which traditions were actually imported alongside my family and which were adopted after immigration, perhaps to feel more connected to the cultural traditions of the homeland they left behind. For example, my family always hides a pickle ornament on the Christmas tree—which is not actually an old German tradition, but an American invention attributed to Germany as part of a marketing ploy to sell more ornaments, and I don’t really know when or why my family adopted it. Conversely, there are some traditions that I know are specific to my family, like a Plattdeutsch poem my dad regularly recites about a dowry, passed down from my family from Niedersachsen. I’ve not met anyone else who knows the poem, even when actively looking. It seems to be something specific to my family—perhaps a stanza of a Brautbitter poem, though I haven’t been able to get a clear answer on this because my dad doesn’t remember and most of his older relatives have long since passed away.
That muddling is obvious even in some of our older Christmas traditions. Every year, for generations on my mom’s side of the family, someone has taken on the responsibility of baking Springerle. Outside of Germany and Austria, I haven’t met many people familiar with these distinctive cookies. They are believed to be Swabian in origin, which is where the confusion comes in—my maternal grandmother’s family comes entirely from the island of Fehmarn in the Baltic Sea, part of the northernmost state of Germany, so I have no idea how we came by this very southern recipe, but it’s nevertheless been in the family for centuries. I assume someone from the south of Germany must have married into the family at some point and introduced the recipe, but I haven’t been able to track that person down in the family tree.
For those unfamiliar, Springerle are a dry, almost biscuit-like cookie, usually flavored with anise. The name comes from the German Springer, meaning knight or jumper, and the schwäbische diminutive –le (related to the somewhat obsolete –lein diminutive in Hochdeutsch, meaning “little”, such as in Fräulein), though the exact reasons for the name are unclear. The recipe for Springerle is relatively simple, using only a handful of ingredients (they date back to the Middle Ages, so no surprise there), but the process of making them is a bit complicated: the dough itself is rolled out either cold or heavily coated in flour, and a design is pressed into it using a Springerle mold. It’s then left overnight to dry before baking. If the dough is too moist, the cookies will bubble and won’t form a proper “foot,” which is one of the markers of well-made Springerle. The baked cookies are then stored for a few weeks to ripen/age, which helps develop the flavor and soften the final product.
My aunt is the last person to take on the responsibility of making Springerle for the family. When I was a kid, she would mail us tins of the cookies every year, until my brother and I were grown. She made them again in 2018 for my December wedding to my husband (who is also of German ancestry, and is actually Swabian). But for a few years prior to my wedding, and every year since, I’ve taken up the mantle and tried to make Springerle myself.
It’s been challenging. I am not the best baker in general, and Springerle can be so finicky that I’ve hit a lot of roadblocks. The first several years, I tried using the oldest version of my family’s recipe that I had available, which called for ingredients I couldn’t get my hands on and an older type of oven. A few years ago, I decided to look up another recipe, which was completely different than the family recipe and ended in disaster (the cookies exploded, didn’t develop a foot, and tasted terribly sugary). Last year, I bought ingredients in bulk and tried adjusting the original family recipe in various ways until I had a batch of cookies that turned out close to correct, but still weren’t quite there. Finally, I called up my aunt to find out how she’s modified the recipe for modern times. She advised me to invest in a Kitchenaid mixer (traditionally, the eggs are stirred in by hand, but the dough gets incredibly hard and sticky during this process and it’s both time-consuming and difficult to mix properly) and asking around on Springerle forums, I was also advised to possibly adjust the amount of flour and the drying time before baking, due to my high elevation (6,000 feet).
Which brings us to this year. Because the cookies needed time to age properly, and because I didn’t trust myself to succeed the first time, baking attempts began in November. It took a few tries over the years, but after following my aunt’s advice and using the Kitchenaid, as well as tweaking some amounts and the order of the directions, I was able to produce dough that felt right and looked right. When I left it out to dry, the imprints became more pronounced.
The dough ended up rising a bit more than I would have liked, when I baked it, likely because I rolled it too thick. However, everything else about the cookies was right, including the flavor, the texture, and the foot. Now to leave them in containers for a few weeks, for the flavor to more fully develop!
So, that’s it! This year, I finally successfully baked Springerle, perhaps the most important of my family’s recipes due to the fact that someone has been able to make them every generation. Hopefully this means I can carry on the tradition and eventually pass it on to my own kids. Now onto the next challenges: Spritzgebäck and Pfeffernüsse.
JK, I already know how to make those 🙂
For anyone who’s curious, here are the measurements and the cooking time I ended up using, adjusted from a family recipe from the late 1800s. This version of the recipe uses baking powder as opposed to hartshorn, as the latter can be hard to find. Hartshorn has been the preferred choice historically for the most authentic Springerle, so if you want to go full-blown Medieval with your cooking methods, I recommend ordering it. If you do use hartsorn instead of baking powder, cut the butter from the recipe.
1 lb powdered sugar
3-4 cups flour (adjust as needed; dough should not be too dry)
1 tsp baking powder
4 large eggs
Anise seeds OR 1 tsp anise extract
Butter “the size of a walnut” (I used 1/8 a cup, and that seemed to work well)
Beat eggs together until frothy. Add in softened butter and anise extract (if using seeds/star anise, you’ll want to spread them on the sheet you’ll eventually be baking on, and bake the dough on top of them). Gradually, add in powdered sugar, allowing plenty of time for it to mix before adding more. I did about a half cup at a time. Sift a portion of the flour (about a cup) with the baking powder to ensure even distribution, and add to the mixture, allowing time to blend. Continue adding flour gradually until dough is a nice texture—it should not be too dry, but also shouldn’t be runny. It should be a tiny bit sticky.
Wrap the dough in saran wrap and put it in the fridge for no more than 30 minutes. Then take it out and roll it to about 1/4 of an inch thick. You might need to coat the rolling pin with flour. Finally, press with a mold/design, cut the individual biscuits apart, and let stand int he open to dry for approximately 24 hours. The bottom of the Springerle should still be moist in the middle, but dry at the edges. Finally, bake in the oven at 300 degrees fahrenheit on a thick pan for 25-28 minutes.
A proper Springerle should develop a foot during baking—a risen part of the dough that sticks out beneath the dry part, as shown in the picture above. Once baked, you can enjoy them then and there. However, it’s best to store them in a tin with a few weeks to allow the flavor and texture to develop. Some people store them with a slice of apple for additional moisture, swapping it out before it goes bad.