We finally got around to baking this year’s Springerle (Shpring-er-la) – “Little Jumpers”. It wouldn’t be Christmas without them.
They’re a cookie that’s unique to Swabia, the South-Western region of Germany around Stuttgart. The dough consists of eggs, flour, icing sugar and just a pinch of hartshorn salt (ammonium carbonate)*, and the cookies are made by pressing the dough into carved wooden molds, letting them dry overnight, then in the morning brushing the bottoms with water and baking them at a fairly low heat. The dried-out surfaces are firm and hold the image, while the bottom expands straight up – they “jump up” to twice their height, hence the name.
My grandmother always made them and sent us some, and when she passed away more than twenty years ago, I asked for her molds. I already had some molds I got from my mother, who wasn’t using them; one of them, a double mold with a squirrel and a strawberry, had come from a great-great-aunt, and it has her name and “1909” written on the back. My grandmother’s also have her last name pencilled on the back.
The reason for labelling them is the (now mostly lost) custom of Springerle-baking evenings: a little bit like quilting bees, where all the women in a village would get together to bake Springerle, sharing the molds, so that everyone could get a good variety of images. The men, in the meantime, would sit around carving new molds out of hardwood.
As I said, some of my molds are 110 years old; others are much newer, labelled with my name and the name of my daughter and the date just a few years ago, acquired on one of our trips. My favourites are the Father Christmas and the goose girl, which are among the antique ones – no date on them, but they might be the same vintage as the squirrel/strawberry. When the goose girl turns out well, you can see the tiny imprints of the grain kernels she’s scattering for the goose at her feet! (Hmm, actually, now that I look closely – that’s not a goose, it’s a chicken. And here I’ve been calling that mold “the goose girl” all these years, after my best-disliked fairy tale.)
Springerle are actually not the tastiest of cookies – they’re kind of bland and mostly sugary. Also, you’re supposed to bake them much earlier in the season (I’m about four weeks behind this year), and they go rock-hard in storage and are best eaten as “dunkers”, rather like biscotti. But because of that, they don’t need to be kept in airtight containers; in fact, if you want, you can poke holes into them before baking, and then put a ribbon through them and hang them on the Christmas tree. After Christmas you get to “plunder the tree” and eat all the edibles that have been hanging on it.
Another one of my favourite molds is the grape. The reason I love that one is because it was the one that Oma liked best, and it has her name on the back. The bag of cookies she’d send us always had one or two of those in it.
Christmas traditions tie me to my past, to my history. And now that I’ve been baking Springerle for several decades myself, they have become part of my family’s tradition, too. The word “tradition” comes from Latin “tradere”, “to hand on”. My molds were handed on to me by forebears, and my daughter already has dibs on inheriting them when I go.
Now that is sweet.
For those who’re wondering, here’s the actual recipe. You probably don’t have any antique wooden molds to make them with, but maybe you can find something else to imprint the tops with?
4 lg. Eggs
500g Powdered (Icing) Sugar
500g White Flour
1 knife-tip (=1/8 tsp) Hartshorn Salt* (aka ammonium bicarbonate, smelling salts, etc.)
Beat the eggs and icing sugar until very fluffy; stir the hartshorn salt into the sifted flour and mix into the egg & sugar, knead into a smooth dough. Form into a ball and let rest for 1 hr.
Roll out ca. 1cm thick, cut into little squares. Dust the molds with flour, press dough into it, trim the edges. Poke in holes with a toothpick for hanging up, if you want.**
Lay onto a cookie sheet overnight to let the tops dry and the designs “set”. In the morning, brush bottoms with water, put on a greased cookie sheet (the recipe calls for sprinkling it with ground anise, but I don’t, because I don’t care for the flavour). Bake in preheated 150-160°C (200-210°F) oven for 18-22 minutes. They’re supposed to “spring up” and have “feet”, but stay nice & pale.
Store in cookie tins or hang on the Christmas tree.
Beware of the first bite once they’ve sat for a while; you might chip a tooth. The best tooth to attack it with is your eyetooth, the sharper the better. Or else, dunk them into your afternoon coffee or Christmas Eve mulled wine.
*Hartshorn salt: I get it in a German deli; I’m not sure what you could substitute it with if you don’t have access to one of those. It’s extremely volatile stuff – it comes in little pouches, and once or twice when the pouch wasn’t properly closed after using the tiny pinch required for the recipe, I’ve had the remainder evaporate on me between one year and the next.
**When you’re cleaning up, do not get the molds wet, or they’ll crack. Brush out any stuck-on dough with a stiff dry brush (I use a toothbrush that’s reserved for this purpose) and maybe scrape out the design with a knife tip or a toothpick.