An alternative title to this blog post could have been “Christmas baking 2012: bridging Italian and German Christmas baking traditions”. Having grown up in Germany, having spent the last decade or so living in the UK with brief stints in South America, Germany and Brussels, as well as now being based in Rome, has played havoc with any sense of national identity I might ever have had.
Yes, first and foremost I am German (as this is what it says on my passport), but I feel equally foreign when I go back home to my parents’ house just outside of Dusseldorf as when I am in the UK speaking to my English colleagues. And while the time I spent in the UK eventually eradicated my German accent, convincing taxi drivers and new acquaintances to think I am in fact English, none of this is of any help now that I live in Rome, trying to master a language I understand so well yet am still not fluent in, working out bus routes and, most importantly, figuring out what to eat.
Italian food is delicious, I will give you that. But it also often strikes me as pretty limited in flavour profiles. A somewhat unjust criticism given that most national cuisines (except for regional varities) are based on certain set flavour profiles … but, I guess my time in the UK got me used to the omnipresence of Thai food, Vietnamese grills, Sushi restaurants, Turkish restaurants, Scandinavian cuisine … so much so that I had a little meltdown in the kitchen the other day because I could not for the life of me figure out what to have for dinner, as the only thing I knew was that, for once, I did not want anything Ita
Italian that day. A steaming bowl of Ramen eaten next to Alessandro who was munching on a Piadina eventually did the trick.
This “sitting between chairs” of various countries and cultures also means that the foods I associate with Christmas have changed over the years. Growing up in Germany, Chrismas was all about the tons of different types of Christmas cookies (Pfeffernuesse, Zimtsterne, Gingerbread, Spekulatius, Vanillekipferl etc to name just a few), not to forget the omnipresent Christstollen (with or without Marzipan), but also Dominosteine (little chocolate-covered cubes containing a layer each of soft gingerbread, Marzipan and a tart fruitpaste), Baumkuchen (a cake consisting of dozens of superfine layers of soft cake), Marzipanbrot (essentially a log of Marzipan, with or without Nougat in the centre and usually covered in milk or dark chocolate) and Marzipanpotatoes (little blobs of Marzipan, dusted in cocoa powder and made to look like potatoes – endlessly fascinating when I was a child) … and then I moved to the UK where Christmas sweets seemed to be associated with the holy trifecta of Minced Pies, Christmas Pudding and Christmas Cake – definitely not a country for those who hate dried fruit and mixed peel! I love love love minced pies and the galette made with my minced meat that had been steeping in brandy for a good 3 weeks which we ate for dessert on Christmas Eve (served with freshly made toasted rice ice cream and a drizzle of brown butter) was divine, but Christmas Cake and Christmas Pudding must be acquired tastes…
And now I am living in Italy … where Christmas is mainly associated with quick breakfasts of Pandoro or Panettone but where home-made Christmas baking seems virtually unheard of … not to mention the fact that most Italians (including Alessandro) I have met are not very keen on spices like ginger, cinnamon, cloves etc. typically used in Christmas baking in the rest of Europe.
But one thing Alessandro does like (in fact, love) are his aunt’s anise seed-studded Giambelli di Vino – little donut-shaped cookies made with wine (hence the name) and studded with plenty of anise seed and rolled in sugar to give them a nice crunch. His aunt eventually gave me the recipe, but, as is often the case in these situations, the recipe was pretty vague (“flour as much as is necessary” read one of the instructions). Besides, however hard I would try, I knew my Giambelli would never be as good as hers. Instead, I set out to create my own version of an anise-flavoured cookie.
The shape and consistency of these little crescent-shaped cookies very much recalls German/Austrian Vanille Kipferl – a crumbly vanilla-flavoured and crescent-shaped cookie with a bit of bite and crunch thanks to the cookies being rolled in sugar as soon as they are cool enough to handle once they have come out of the oven (the residual heat and moisture helps the sugar to stick) and that are typically eaten around Christmas only. So, in my eyes at least, the recipe below is still very much a Christmas cookie – not only does it look like one but anise seed is in fact a typical ingredient in German Christmas baking.
While anise seed may not be to everyone’s taste, Alessandro,my family and I loved these little crumbly cookies (and so did our colleagues who are quickly turning into my taste-testers) and it is certainly something a little different from the omnipresent gingerbread cookies.
Ingredients, makes ca. 30
140g all purpose flour
1 pinch of salt
2 teaspoon anise seeds
100g cold butter, cubed
4 teaspoons sugar and 2 teaspoons anise seeds (to roll the baked cookies in)
1. Roast all the anise seeds in a dry pan on medium heat until fragrant.
2. Place the oats and the anise seeds (reserving 2 teaspoon) in a food processor and process until coarsely ground.
3. Place the ground oats, anise seed, flour, sugar and salt in a bowl and form a well.
4. Add the cubed butter and using a knife or a pastry cutter cut the butter into the other ingredients until the mixture resembles sand.
5. Add the egg and quickly combine everything to form a smooth dough. Wrap in foil and let rest in the fridge for ca. 1 hour.
6. Pre-heat the oven to 170 degrees.
7. Using tablespoon-sized chunks of dough form ca. 30 crescent-shaped cookies, placing them on a baking tray lined with parchment paper. Bake for ca. 12 minutes until golden.
8. Roll the warm cookies in a mix of the remaining sugar and the remaining anise seeds.