In Germany, the feast of St. Nicholas places the Christmas holiday emphasis squarely on fun and food. Thanks to German friends and their annual Christmas parties, I have learned that on the eve of Dec. 16, the legendary St. Nicholas and his servant, Ruprecht, are said to visit children to discover if they have been naughty or nice through the year. A child with a good report merits edible gifts, such as chocolates and cookies.
Christmas Eve and Christmas Day dinners, my friends tell me, are usually family affairs. But on the second day of Christmas, people gather for coffee and pastries with friends. During this holiday season, the tempting hausegemacht (homemade) desserts that are everyday fare in Germany take on special importance.
There are fruitcakes, plum puddings, gingerbread, honey cakes and an incredible variety of cookies. Christmas stollen -- yeast bread filled with almonds, raisins, candied orange peel, lemon peel, citron and cherries -- is on every table. And apple strudel is a Christmas requirement throughout Germany.
No matter how busy people's lives, it's back to tradition in Germany when it comes to Christmas baking. For those of you who've been too busy to bake before now, my friends' easy cookie recipes are guaranteed to lighten that chore and sweeten your Christmas. The cinnamon stars are recommended for people on low-cholesterol diets. Both cookies keep well when stored in an airtight container.
1 1/4 cups flour
1 stick plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 ounces sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup ground almonds
3/4 cup sugar
juice of 2 lemons
juice of 1 lemon
Knead together flour, butter, sugar, egg, baking powder and vanilla. Chill. Combine almonds, sugar and lemon juice. Divide dough in half. Roll or pat into a 1/4 -inch-thick rectangle on a greased baking sheet. Spread filling over top. Pat out remaining dough over top. Bake in a 300-degree oven just until golden brown. Cut immediately into 1-inch-by-2-inch rectangles. Cool. Combine lemon juice and enough sugar to make a thin glaze and brush over top of cookies. Wrap in aluminum foil. Makes about 2 dozen. Store leftovers in refrigerator.
4 egg whites
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups powdered sugar plus extra for rolling
5-6 cups finely ground unblanched almonds with skins
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Beat egg whites until frothy, add salt and continue beating to soft peaks. Sift in sugar gradually while continuing to beat. Continue beating until stiff and shiny. Reserve 1-1 1/2 cups of mixture for topping. Fold in 5 cups of almonds, cinnamon and lemon juice, adding more almonds if dough is sticky. Chill 15 minutes.
Sift the extra powdered sugar onto rolling surface and roll dough out to 5/8-inch thickness. Cut out cookies with a 2-inch, star-shape cookie cutter dipped in powdered sugar to prevent sticking. Place on parchment-lined cookie sheets. Using finger, spread reserved egg-white mixture over top of each star just to edge of cookies. Let rest on cookie sheets at room temperature for 2 hours. Bake in a 200-degree oven for 30-35 minutes. Top should remain white and insides will be a little bit sticky. If tops begin to brown, cover with parchment. Cool and store in airtight container. Makes about 4 dozen.