Christmas Cookies Inspired by My Danube River Cruise

Christmas cookies
Christmas baking

“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.” It’s that time of year again and that can only mean one thing: Time to bake Christmas cookies.  This year I was inspired by the Danube River cruise I took this summer and decided I needed to bake some traditional German cookies.

Christmas Cookies
Traditional Lebkuchen cookies nestled between more traditional chocolate cookies.

On the second day of my cruise with Viking River Cruises, I scored big by finding a tray of delicious cookies in the coffee area.  On that tray was a delicious lebkuchen cookie nestled in between a few chocolate cookies. You’ve never tried lebkuchen?  It tastes like a warm hug from a grandmother and was both comforting and familiar.

While I can’t recall if I ever had lebkuchen as a child, my German father did instill in me a love of cooking, baking, travel, and photography.  For this Christmas baking season, one where he loved receiving my home baked cookies, I’m including a few German cookies in honor of him and the time I spent in Germany this summer.  Since I can’t spend Christmas in Germany, why not bake a little German Christmas love, right?

My first cookie for this Christmas cookie season is the beloved lebkuchen, a cookie that dates back to the 1400’s and is from one of my favorite German cities, Nuremberg.  Exotic spices were sold in the open markets of Nuremberg (Nürnberg) and soon after monks created lebkuchen from the spices, almonds from Spain, and honey from the nearby Black Forest.

Christmas Cookies
Lebkuchen Hearts

No visit to a Christmas market in Germany is complete without spotting the beautifully decorated heart shaped cookies.  I spotted the hearts, which are a harder type of lebkuchen known as Lebkuchen Hearts, while I was in Berlin at a Christmas market in Potsdamer Platz.  Think of them like a German gingerbread with tons of tradition baked inside each cookie.

Christmas Cookies

The recipe I tracked down and used for my lebkuchen was from Lottie + Doof.  That recipe originated from Cook’s Illustrated and can be found here. While labor intensive, it was well worth the extra effort involved with zesting three large oranges, two lemons, grating fresh nutmeg, mixing, rolling, baking, and so on.  I only hope I did the recipe and the tradition justice.  These soft gingerbread cookies have a thin icing over the top and are one that children and adults will like.

My second German cookie this year is the pfeffernüssepfefferneusse, or “pepper nuts” as some recipes do call for both pepper and nuts.  Pfeffernüsse is apparently a variation of lebkuchen so I thought, “why not?”  I found a great recipe from the Cookie Jar Blog here that was full of spices like anise, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, and ginger as well as black pepper, but no nuts.  These rich, dark cookies made with molasses and honey are usually found coated in confectioners sugar to balance out the spice used to create the distinct flavor.  It’s advised to make the cookies and then store them away for a few days to develop their flavors and to let them soften before serving.

Christmas Cookies

My guess is that some people see these cookies and think, “Oh no — those are probably those hard, weird cookies that remind me of my grandparents.” While children may not call them their favorites if placed next to a sugar cookie or chocolate chip cookie, adults may think otherwise.  These are the kind of Christmas cookies you’ll want to bake and share not only because of their history and tradition, but because they always bring back great childhood memories.

Choose your pfeffernüsse recipe wisely and once made, enjoy them by dipping into your beverage of choice (adults will choose some type of alcoholic beverage for sure, but milk will do), which will help if the cookie isn’t as soft as you like.  Not every recipe is the same and mine came out delicious, soft, and nothing like the store bought, rock hard cookies I remember.  While writing this post I learned that these are my sister’s favorite cookie.  Who knew?

Christmas Cookies
MerryOldSanta” by Thomas Nast – Edited version of Image:1881 0101 tnast santa 200.jpg.. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Pfeffernüsse is meant to be served only at Christmas time.  In fact, some say that Santa Claus puts the cookies in the shoes of good children on December 5, the day St. Nicholas is said to visit.  But did you know that National Pfeffernüsse Day is December 23rd?  If you make them now, they’ll be ready just in time to celebrate.

After making both of these cookies, my house smelled like a gingerbread factory.  Nothing beats that smell and that combined with the smell of a freshly cut Christmas tree let’s you know it’s definitely Christmas time.

Other cookies I made this year include Thumbprint Snowman Cookies from Katrina’s Kitchen – each painstakingly decorated with a toothpick to create those cute little carrot noses and other decorations; Siri’s Vanilla Bean Sugar Cookies from the Today Show (where I have discovered and fallen in love with vanilla bean paste); Coconut Balls, a recipe from one of my old cookbooks that is full of pecans and rolled in coconut; and Red Velvet Chocolate Chip Cookies from Sally’s Baking Addiction.  Cookie came out great and taste yummy, but they’re not as red as I would’ve liked despite using a massive amount of red food coloring.

Do your travels inspire your baking or cooking?  How? Do you have a favorite Christmas cookie you’d like to share? Let me know your thoughts by commenting below.