Favorite holiday memories invariably include cookies in countless shapes, sizes and flavors, often decked out in colorful decorations. Our country is such a melting pot, that so many of the traditional holiday cookies find their origins in the treats that have been baked for centuries in countries far away. Winter holidays around the globe have provided sweet inspiration for all manner of adored cookie recipes.
My parents were German, so at Christmas we looked forward to Linzertorte (a nut dense bar cookie version of Linzer cookies), Butterbäk (almond Spritz cookies made using disks attached to my grandmother’s manual meat grinder) and Chocolate Meringue Cookies.
A Christmas Eve visit with our Italian neighbors meant anise shortbreads, biscotti flecked with candied cherries in holiday hues. (Check out our Hazelnut Biscotti and lemon-scented Florentines which I later found out were thinner versions of Norwegian Krumkake.) Our Oatmeal Lace Cookies remind me a lot of those Florentines. Drizzle them with melted Candy Melts® for an elegant holiday indulgence.
As a teen, my after-school boss introduced me to Mandelbrot (very similar to biscotti), left over from her Hannukah celebrations. Guess the traditional Loukomades (Fried Honey Puffs) and fried Latkes (potato pancakes) wouldn’t have tasted as good the next day! Some Jewish families I knew traditionally made Sesame Rings, oil-based cookies glazed with honey then dipped in sesame seeds, for their celebrations – yum!
It wasn’t until the 1500s that actual “Christmas” cookies began appearing in cookbooks throughout Europe. Today’s spiced cookies find their roots in these European treats. German families baked up pans of Lebkuchen – the inspiration for today’s gingerbread.
Germans also introduced us to tender buttery Spritz Cookies. While delicious served plain, for the holidays they were decorated with dried fruits, nuts and melted chocolate, similar to how we now decorate with sugars, sprinkles and melted Candy Melts®.
Many Europeans used cut-out cookies to decorate their holiday trees and homes. The basics of the cookie – butter, flour, sugar and eggs – were the same, but the flavorings and shapes were unique to each country. Swedes preferred spicy ginger/black pepper flavor notes; Norwegians favored adding cardamom to theirs. Many Scandinavian and Italian cookies feature anise and lemon flavors. Nuts were a common addition for this special occasion.
German and Dutch settlers brought the first hand-made cookie cutters and molds to the New World and continued their tradition of decorating for the holidays with these edible treats. Commercially-made cutters were not available until the late 1800s. These cutters illustrated highly stylized images with holiday subjects designed specifically to hang on the Christmas tree. Today, Roll-Out Cookies in the shapes of trees, stockings, candy canes, bells, stars and others are an important part of many holiday celebrations.
In Spain and Latin America, Alfajores, a decadent sandwich cookie with rich dulce de leche filling is a favorite celebration cookie. And while most of us enjoy Mexican Wedding Cookies – round buttery, powdered sugar dipped cookies – almost every nationality has a similar cookie in their holiday repertoire.
These are just a few of the cookie recipes I enjoy. What are some of your favorite International holiday cookies and sweet treats?