In Germany, there's perhaps no greater indication that Christmas is coming than festive biscuits. And everyone, says Tamsin Walker, can make them. Or almost everyone.
I have this book. A slip of a volume called Weihnachtsplätzchen, or Christmas cookies, that was given to me a few years ago by my eldest daughter. As a hint perhaps, an expression of hope, or just an answer to the silent cry for help my hapless baking hand has been stirring into the festive dough for as long as any of us can remember. For however officially German I might be, my festive baking is anything but.
Every December when households up and down the country start to whip up all kinds of fancy "plätzchen" in an instinctive, almost primal way, said book gives me a knowing wink. And every year, I ignore it, opting instead for an "easy Christmas biscuits" internet search.
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I don't think I've ever used the same "easy" recipe twice, but even so, they almost invariably come out with a characteristic hard sugared cardboard taste. You could say I belong to the "nailed it" school of bakery. This year though, after listening to my neighbors talk about the many different kinds of cookies they make with their families every year, I decided to up my game with the help of a certain volume that has been sitting around for years.
So, on the first Sunday in December, my kids and I rolled up our sleeves to get cracking. Except there wasn't much cracking to be done, because I'd forgotten the eggs and the almonds, which are a staple in the festive German kitchen. Strike one.
The second Sunday got off to a more promising start, in that we mixed, mashed and rolled a batch of dough as per instruction. But when it came to cutting it, we deviated from the prescribed circles neatly dusted with icing sugar to create pink donkeys, purple reindeer and orange polar bears. Strike one and a half.
Baking like I mean it
It was a colorful menagerie, but did not spell the end of my aspiration to bake like a German. And by then, I had eggs, almonds and the endless time the book said I needed for one of the national favorites: cinnamon stars.
They're soft, nutty and cinnamony creations topped with a pristine egg white and sugar icing. Unless, like me, you leave them in the oven so long that they turn to rock and the icing assumes an unappealing singed egg hue. Strike two.
At that point, I decided to stick to mulled wine for my Advent flavors and leave the kitchen to one of my daughters, who had her mind and heart set on making gingerbread men. I did her the favor of staying well away, until the smell of warm spices tempted me to open the oven door.
A dozen perfectly formed gingerbread men smiled up at me. So I slid the tray back into the oven and left my daughter to it. Only I'd also left my mark. I'm not quite sure how, but in that one moment of involvement, that single movement, I managed to decapitate the entire back row of her cheerful chaps. Oops. Strike three.
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I've since closed my slip of a volume and put it back on the shelf for another year — quite possibly longer. And I thought everyone at my place would have had enough of baking for a while, but when my gingerbread-loving girl came home yesterday, she asked me with genuine delight to guess what she'd volunteered to take to her class Christmas party. I couldn't, but I'm sure by now you can. But then she, unlike me, was born German.
In Berlin and Beyond, British-born Tamsin Walker takes a closer look at some of the quirks and perks of life in Germany, which has been her home for almost 20 years. She tweets as @TamsinkateW