The German Christmas season officially begins with the first Sunday of Advent. Stollen, the oldest known German Christmas treat, and Christmas cookies (Plätzchen) are often baked during this time. Gingerbread houses, nativity scenes, hand-carved wooden Nutcracker figures (Nussknacker), Christmas pyramids (Weihnachtspyramiden), and lighted city streets and homes are all signs that Christmas is on its way.
When the Advent season opens, Christmas markets also crop up in nearly every German town, large or small. The town squares, normally dark early in winter months, are lit up and buzzing with activity during this time. Townspeople gather together, listen to brass band music, drink beer or hot mulled wine (Glühwein) or apple cider, and enjoy the hearty traditional fare of the region. Vendors peddle baked goods, including gingerbread hearts, sugar-roasted almonds, crepes, cookies, stollen, cotton candy and other sweets. Christmas tree decorations, seasonal items, and handcrafted articles, such as wooden toys and hand-blown glass ornaments, are also sold.
Markets differ from place to place; each has its own regional imprint. The market at Aachen, for instance, is known for its gingerbread men (Aachner Printen). The regions around the Erzgebirge mountain range are famous for their handmade wooden crafts. Augsburg has a life-sized Advent calendar and opens the holiday season with its famous "Angel Play." At the Frankfurt Christmas Market, visitors will find Quetschenmännchen (little prune men) and Brenten (almond cookies).
The most famous Christmas market is the Nürnberger Christkindlesmarkt, which is known for its gold foil angels and locally produced gingerbread cakes. At least 375 years old, it is one of the oldest, and with over 200 vendors participating each year, it is also one of the largest Weihnachtsmärkte in Germany.
These cookies, though simple and easy to make, remind me of a Christmas spent in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a beautiful small town in Bavaria. If you ever want to experience the true spirit of Christmas, this is where it's all at! The recipe is from Grand Chef Relais & Chateaux Johann Lafer of Stromburg, Germany. You can't get more authentic than that.
By the way, icing sugar is the name given in Europe to powdered or confectioners sugar.
Total time: more than 2 hours
Preheat oven at 200° C (400° F)
Preparation time: 20 minutes
Waiting time: 2 hours
Cooking time: 10 minutes
Keep for several weeks in an airtight tin
Vanillekipferl, or vanilla crescents - even though their origin is certainly Austrian, no German household would be without this tradition.
Prepare the vanilla sugar a day ahead by mixing the icing sugar with the vanilla pods or the vanilla powder. Place in a glass jar and close tightly. The icing sugar will take on the flavour of the vanilla.
For about 30 crescents
- 60 g (2 oz.) ground almonds
- 100 g (3 1/2 oz.) cold butter
- 40 g (6 1/2 tbsp.) icing sugar
- 1 egg yolk
- The pulp scraped from 2 vanilla beans
- 330 ml (2 1/3 cups) flour
- A pinch of salt
- 100-150 g (1 to 1 1/2 cups) icing sugar
- vanilla powder
Brown the ground almonds in a hot skillet and allow to cool.
Quickly knead the butter, icing sugar, egg yolk, vanilla pulp, flour, almonds and salt into a smooth dough. Let the dough rest in a cool place for 2 hours.
Form the dough into about 30 crescents and place them on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper. Bake in a preheated 200°C / 400° F oven for about 10 minutes.
Roll the still-warm crescents in the vanilla icing sugar. Store the crescents in a cookie tin, each layered separated by parchment paper.