Spice Up Your Holiday Cookie Platter with this Traditional German Recipe
When I was growing up, December was always cookie month. My mother baked a batch of cookies almost every day to prepare for the Christmas festivities. Although she always changed the mix of cookies that went into the rotation — adding some, dropping others — one always appeared without fail: these great Anise Drop Cookies. Her recipe was handed down from her grandmother, and in turn handed down to me. And I gave it to Mrs. Kitchen Riffs, who is the cookie baker in our household.
The anise flavor is pronounced in these cookies, but not overwhelming. Anise is somewhat reminiscent of licorice — though even people who don’t like licorice (or black jelly beans) will probably like these cookies. (I hated black jelly beans when I was a kid, and they’re still the last jelly bean standing at Easter; but I always liked this cookie.) And of course, anyone who does like licorice will adore this cookie.
Anise is used in some Italian cookies and biscotti, and features in several of Germany’s best known holiday cookies, including Pfeffernüsse and Springerle. In fact, these cookies taste somewhat like Springerle, but are less labor intensive to make.
If you have an electric stand mixer, making Anise Drop Cookies is fairly simple. But it does take a bit of time — for the best results, you want to let them sit out overnight before baking.
If you insist on baking them right after mixing, you’ll still get a good cookie. But waiting overnight may be a good thing around Christmastime. After all, it lets you practice resisting the temptation to sneak a peek at all those gifts that have your name on them. You haven’t been peeking already, have you?
Recipe: Anise Drop Cookies
These cookies originated in northern Europe, where winters can be seriously chilly. And the weather does affect how these cookies look when they’re baked (though not how they taste, fortunately). If you’re baking them anyplace where the temperature is warmer (and the humidity higher), the cookies will look very much like those in the pictures accompanying this post.
But if you mix these and let them sit overnight under ideal weather conditions before baking, the cookies will form little “pillow tops” or “self frosting.” “Ideal” in this case means very low humidity. So for most of us, the best time to make these cookies is when the weather is cold and the furnace (sans humidifier) is working hard, drying out the house. More on this in the Notes.
Baking these cookies used to drive my mother nuts when I was young, by the way — she always wanted the little pillow tops to form! But her success rate was probably under 50 percent. I always thought my parents could do anything when I was a kid, but not even my mom could control the weather.
This recipe was one my great-grandmother used, and it’s pretty standard. In fact, almost all the recipes for Anise Drop Cookies that you’ll see in cookbooks look more or less like this one. It takes about 45 minutes to mix the cookies and drop them onto cookie sheets. Then another 8 hours (at least) for them to sit before baking (you can extend this up to two days). You’ll probably need at least two cookie sheets when baking these (so all the cookies have room to sit overnight). Baking takes 10 minutes or so.
This recipe yields a bit more than 4 dozen cookies. The baked cookies will store well in airtight containers for a week or so (if they get hard, just dunk them in your favorite beverage).
- 3 large eggs, at room temperature (seriously consider using pasteurized eggs for this recipe; see Notes)
- 1 tablespoon butter (for preparing baking sheets)
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1½ cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 heaping tablespoon anise seed (preferably pounded fine with a mortar & pestle)
- Set out eggs to warm the night before you plan to make these, or at least 3 hours ahead of time (see Notes).
- When ready to mix the cookie dough, prepare the baking sheets. Either grease them liberally with butter or use silicone baking mats (and butter those).
- Break eggs into the bowl of an electric stand mixer (you can beat them by hand, but be warned: you need to beat them a lot).
- Beat the eggs on medium until light and frothy — then keep beating for another 15 minutes.
- Gradually beat in the sugar. Keep beating! You want to beat for at least 20 minutes all together (see Notes).
- Meanwhile, in a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and anise seed.
- Add the flour mixture to the egg mixture, and beat for another 2 minutes. The texture and consistency of the cookie “dough” will resemble cake batter.
- Using a half teaspoon, drop rounded measures of cookie dough onto prepared baking sheets. Space about an inch apart (or maybe a bit more). The “drops” may look a bit sloppy and uneven, but as the cookies sit they will form smooth ovals.
- Let the cookies stand at room temperature for at least 8 hours, or preferably overnight. (You can actually bake these right away, but the flavor won’t be as good. You can let them sit for 2 nights without worries; see Notes.) Cover with brown paper or aluminum foil to prevent dust or other foreign matter from landing on the cookies. You don’t want the covering to touch the top of the cookies, so it’s best to prop it up with something (I generally use a few shot glasses).
- When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
- Bake cookies for 10 minutes, or until done (they’ll be baked through, and will turn a golden color). Cool on baking rack before serving.
- Letting (egg-laden) cookie dough sit at room temperature for hours creates ideal conditions for salmonella to breed. Although the risk of salmonella in eggs is slight, it’s very real. So I urge you to use pasteurized eggs in this recipe (or any cookie recipe, really). Although it’s unlikely that the eggs you buy will be infected, why take the risk? Especially since most of us can’t make cookies without tasting the raw dough!
- You can easily identify pasteurized eggs because they usually have a red “P” stamped on them.
- This recipe suggests leaving the eggs out overnight because they beat better when they’re at room temperature. (They won’t spoil; remember, chickens lay their eggs at room temperature, and in many parts of the world eggs are sold unrefrigerated.) But if you’re squeamish about this, putting them out for 3 hours should be enough. And if you forget to put them out, no worries — it’ll just take a bit longer to beat them.
- You want to beat the eggs for a long time — at least 20 minutes or so. Why? Well, a couple of reasons, or so I’m told. First, you beat in a lot of air, which helps fluff up the dough. But perhaps more importantly, beating “denatures” the eggs (i.e., it causes the strands of protein to stretch), which makes for a lighter texture.
- When you let the cookies sit overnight before baking, two things happen. One, the anise seed thoroughly permeates the dough, resulting in a more flavorful cookie. Second, the cookie dough dries out somewhat, allowing some of the egg white and sugar to rise to the surface. When the weather conditions are right, this “bloom” can form a visible white layer on the cookies’ surface (that’s what creates the pillow top or frosting effect). The bloom is visible on the cookies before you put them in the oven, and is very obvious when they’re baked.
- Without low humidity, however, the bloom effect will be minimal. If your humidity is higher than 50 percent, letting the cookies sit out two nights may improve your chances of getting the pillow top effect.
- But not always, alas. The cookies pictured directly above the Notes section sat out one night before baking (with humidity at about 75 percent). They have zero pillow top, as you can see. The top and bottom pictures in this post are from the same batch, but these were allowed to sit out for two nights before baking. You may be able to discern some minor blooming (but no pillow top effect). They still taste great, though — and I think they look good even without the “self frosting.”
- Baking powder adds a slight leavening effect to the cookie dough, but as far as I know it doesn’t affect the egg-white bloom (if someone knows differently, I’d be grateful for an education on this).
- Always use fresh baking powder. It does become weaker over time (and most baking powder tins have an expiration date). So replace your baking powder when necessary. I usually replace mine once a year, when daylight savings time ends (so I remember to do it).
- It’s a good idea to shake your baking powder before using it to make sure all the components are well mixed. Baking powder consists of baking soda; an additional acidic ingredient (which reacts with the baking soda to produce leavening); and a neutral substance (usually corn starch) to provide bulk.
Darn the Humidity, Great Taste Ahead!
Mrs. Kitchen Riffs was mumbling as she paged through a stack of cookbooks, a plate of Anise Drop Cookies in front of her.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, grabbing a cookie.
“Oh, I left these out to rest overnight, and they haven’t bloomed the way I’d like them to. I baked half of them just to make sure, and no pillow top. I’m trying to figure out if there’s something I can do differently.”
“These cookies would drive my mother crazy sometimes too,” I said. “She’d always worry whether they’d turn out, and if she got the pillow tops she was always so excited. It’s all the weather — no amount of cookie research can change that. Although I’m always all in favor of researching more cookies!”
“I guess you’re right,” she sighed. “Still, they taste good, don’t they?”
“They’re excellent,” I said helping myself to several more. “You could always let the other cookie sheet sit for another night. I remember my mom would often do that — usually when she didn’t get the bloom after leaving them out the first night.”
“Did that help?” she asked, sampling a cookie.
“Usually not,” I admitted. “But it made her feel like she was doing something.”
“We’re having unseasonably warm weather for December, and it’s way more humid than usual,” nodded Mrs K R. “I blame global warming!”
We both eyed the last cookie on the plate. Finally, Mrs K R picked it up, broke it in two, and offered me half.
That’s my Mrs K R! You have to love someone a lot to share the last of these little beauties.
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