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Although our cooking blog often talks about 19th and 20th century baking, we rarely look at the holiday traditions passed down from German-Jewish refugees to their children and grandchildren. Around 157,000 refugees fleeing National Socialism arrived in the United States between 1933 and 1941. Around 20,000 of these German- and Austrian-Jewish refugees settled in Washington Heights. Residing in such a small area, many of these refugees preserved a cultural legacy of food.
In her German-Jewish Cookbook, Gabrielle Rossmer Gropman (whose parents and grandparents fled National Socialism and settled in Washington Heights) brought the memories associated with German-Jewish baking traditions alive.
Like many Holocaust refugees, Gaby grew up speaking German and eating traditional German food. Her cookbook, written in partnership with her daughter Sonya, pieced together her memories of food, revealing in part a social history of the immigrant experience. Gaby remembered the grocery stores and bakeries she visited in her Washington Heights neighborhood, the cakes for her grandmother's Kaffeeklatch, and her family's holiday pastimes. When I asked in an email conversation what this mother and daughter pair recommended baking with children, Gaby suggested Butterplätzchen, a type of roll-and-cut butter cookie. Both Gaby and Sonya remember making Butterplätzchen with their grandparents.
Plätzchen are a popular style of German butter cookie that can be found in many variations in both handwritten and printed German-Jewish cookbooks. They are also the closest cookie to the traditional holiday Christmas cookie. This is a recipe for Harte Kuchenplätzchen (or "hard cake Plätzchen") in the 12th edition of Rebekka Wolf's Kochbuch für israelitische Frauen:
125 grams of butter, 125 grams of sugar, 250 grams of flour, a bit of salt and small glass of cognac are mixed into a tender dough. The dough is well rolled out, cut out with a glass or similar form and laid out on a baking sheet. The Plätzchen are brushed with egg white, sprinkled with sugar, cinnamon, almonds, and poppy seeds, and baked by moderate heat.
Interestingly, Wolf's Vanille-Plätzchen on the same page are made with potato flour and wheat flour, ingredients not usually found in butter cookies.
You can use this recipe, or you can do what I did and use the The German-Jewish Cookbook, which has a more updated recipe that includes directions on how to chill the dough before cutting out shapes.
Gaby and Sonya's recipe for Butterplätzchen is similar to Wolf's recipe. It calls for lots of butter and sugar and a little bit of cognac.
It does not take much time to mix all these ingredients together thanks to the technology of the modern electric mixer.
The most important part of baking these roll-and-cut cookies is chilling them. I personally can't see how the 19th-century housewife was able to make cookies without a refrigerator unless she didn't have heat for her kitchen.
Part of the fun of making these cookies is letting the children cut out their favorite shapes, although the fun can be short-lived. We chose firetruck, heart and dump truck shapes. The Gropmans's cookbook warned that the weather can have a affect on the rolling process and we found that this was very true when our dough kept getting sticky. Our kitchen was really warm which made the dough loose its crispness. We frequently had to stop and chill the dough a little before starting up again. Eventually the kids got bored and moved onto something else, leaving the grownups to finish.
Once we had them all on the baking sheet, we let them chill before the final big step.
Like Wolf's recipe, Gaby and Sonya suggest brushing the cookies with egg white and decorating them with sprinkles. This is probably the most exciting part for the small kids.
Once the cookies are out of the oven, it's hard to get the kids to wait for everything to cool!
These buttery cookies were delicious and come highly recommended by anyone 5 and under!