I had a holiday party to go to and wanted to make Christmas cookies for it. I was torn, however, between making really delicious cookies and making really beautiful cookies.
Then, this piece about Zimtsterne, the German meringue-like Christmas cookie,popped up on my blog reader, prompted me to seek out a recipe, and I realized I could have the best of both worlds.
While the end result does indeed live up to that goal, it did not happen without a lot of hard work, patience, and cursing.
Thankfully, they taste amazing and while not flawless, still pretty damn beautiful. They taste unlike any Christmas cookie I’ve ever had. They are both crunchy and soft, and have such a wonderful flavor. Once I got the hang of it, they got a little easier, but they do take a long time (particularly if you want the Martha-esque frosting and almond topping). If you are patient and ambitious, I highly recommend attempting these things. Or if you really want to make a gluten-free holiday dessert and are a glutton for pain.
Inspiration from these recipes comes from David Lebovitz, and the recipe used comes from the Food Network. I’ve changed the directions significantly, based on other information I read online before embarking on this project (many from the Food Network commenters) and my own trial and error attempts to make these cookies.
2 1/4 cups confectioners’ sugar
Lots of granulated sugar for rolling
15 ounces sliced almonds, with skin (about 4 1/2 cups)
1 1/4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
3 large egg whites, room temperature
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest
The one nice thing about this recipe is that it’s very forgiving, flexible dough. I could see using other spices or other nuts in the mixture, so I think you could adapt this based on preferences and what you have in the cupboard.
While the recipe calls for lemon zest, I used orange zest. It seemed more holiday-like to me. This was a good choice. The cookies are more cinnamon-orange flavored than almond flavored, so I think if there were lemon there, they might taste a little strange. A couple other recipes online used either Kirsch or brandy in place of the zest. I think those would be good too, particularly because it would be good to have alcohol on hand for when you are ready to throw the dough out the window. Vanilla extract would probably work well too, though you’d lose the nerve-soothing qualities of something more alcoholic.
Also, the Food Network recipe called for confectioners’ sugar for rolling. Don’t even think about it. Use granulated. Other recipes online were split between the two sugars and when the confectioner’s sugar was giving me trouble, I switched to granulated and this became much, much easier.
The first thing I did, since I’m OCD, is sort through the almonds to find nicely shaped ones to use for decorating the cookies. I don’t know if all sliced almonds are as broken and chipped as mine were, but I wanted perfect cookies, so I painstakingly combed through my almonds to make sure I had enough perfectly shaped ones to use for the tops. Skip this step if you aren’t insane.
Sift the confectioners’ sugar. Put 1/2 cup of the sifted confectioners’ sugar, 10 ounces (3 heaping cups) of the almonds and all the cinnamon in a food processor. Process until the nuts are finely ground, with just a few larger pieces.
Whip the egg whites in a large, clean bowl with an electric mixer on high speed until they hold soft peaks, about 1 minute. Gradually add the remaining confectioners’ sugar while whipping, until the whites are thick, creamy and somewhat stiff, about 2 minutes more. Set aside 2/3 cup of this meringue for topping the cookies.
Fold the ground almond mixture and the lemon zest into the remaining meringue to make a stiff dough. The dough is going to look chunky and weird. Don’t worry.
Divide in into two portions, wrap it in plastic wrap, and stick it in the freezer for at least 30 minutes, though longer won’t hurt it.
Now the easy part is over.
The recipe recommends laying parchment or wax paper down to roll the dough out. I didn’t have any, and frankly, I’m not sure it would make a difference. Instead, dump a handful of granulated sugar down on the counter (or the paper, if you want to use it), and spread it out, like it was flour and you were making normal, sane people cookies.
Take one of the dough balls out of the freezer and put it down on the work surface. Keep the plastic wrap and put that over the dough to roll out (actually, here I think wax paper probably would be helpful). Roll the dough until it is about 1/4-inch thick. I found it helpful to keep turning and lifting the dough, and adding more sugar beneath it whenever I thought it was sticking to the counter. As I said before, it’s forgiving, so if you tear it, you can just roll it back together.
Cut cookies with a 3-inch star cutter and place about 2 inches apart on prepared baking sheets.
Cutting the cookies is also a pain. Don’t do this:
You will never be able to get them off the counter.
Instead, cut one star, use a butter knife to get underneath it, and carefully move it to the cookie sheet (greased or lined with parchment) and poke it through the cookie cutter onto the cookie sheet.
Keep a bowl of lukewarm water handy and rinse your cookie cutter off every couple of stars.
The saving grace in all of this is that excess dough can be rerolled, over and over again. I just would put it back in the freezer for 5-10 minutes before doing it because it does make things much easier.
Preheat the oven to 250 degrees F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats, or just grease them.
At this point, I stopped taking pictures because I was covered with sugar and getting kind of cranky.
Use a small spoon, brush or offset spatula to spread the reserved meringue over the top of each cookie, taking care not to let the meringue drip over the sides. I used that weird-shaped butter knife thing that comes in most cutlerly sets. That worked well, since it has a little point to it, making it easy to spread the frosting on the star points. It still takes forever though, and then you get to painstakingly press remaining sliced almonds in a decorative pattern into the meringue.
See? Total labor of love.
You could also just grind up more almonds and sprinkle those on the meringue. Or save yourself the headache, and leave the meringue plain.
Bake cookies until bottoms are light golden brown and meringue is set and crisp, about 30 minutes. (Adjust this time based on the size of the cookie cutter. Food Network recommended 30 minutes for a 3 inch cutter. I did it for 20 minutes with my 2 inch cutter.) I think this is an area where you can use your judgment. Cook them the maximum time if you want them crispy, cook them for less if you want them chewy. I’d just keep an eye on them. When they are done, turn off the oven and open the oven door to release heat and dry cookies out in the oven for 10 more minutes.
And there you have it.