My late grandmother had the peculiar habit of never unpacking gifts we gave her. She would set them aside “for another time”, leaving them at my parents’ home forever wrapped and unopened. One of those Christmas castaways was a baking book with color photos. I spent many hours leafing through it, salivating over recipes like chestnut ice cream cake. This was in the mid-1970s, long before the Internet propelled lavish food photos into every corner of the world.
A few years ago my mother gave that book to me. Because many of the recipe images were etched in my mind it felt like bringing home an album with photos of old friends. One of those memorable recipes were heart-shaped cookies with a pink and white icing and an almond half, called Herrnhuter Herzen. They look like the prototype of Valentine’s Day cookies, and it intrigued me that they seemed to have no obvious connection with that tradition. The book says they originated in Herrnhut, a town in Saxony, about 70 miles east of Dresden.
Although the tourist office in Herrnhut could not find any record about the cookies in the archives of the town’s museum, the director referred me to a local bakery and pastry shop that has been in the same family since 1841. The baker told me his bakery has not sold Herrnhuter Herzen since the end of the Second World War but he was able to furnish some guesses about the icing. The gathering of kindred hearts, I had already found out myself, plays a crucial role in the beliefs of the Moravian Church, of which Herrnhut is the historic center. The pink icing, the baker told me, stands for the blood of Jesus that purifies the human heart, i.e. makes it white. He thought the almond could simply be for garnish, or a symbol of the core of the heart. Interestingly, the paper-thin wafers known as Moravian cookies in the United States have no similarity with Herrnhuter Herzen; they are spice cookies that originated in the Moravian communities of colonial America.
I made Herrnhuter Herzen for Valentine’s Day, slightly diverging from the recipe in the book: as sandwich cookies with a jelly filling. When it was almost midnight and I was still sitting at the kitchen table spreading the bicolored icing onto the hearts, it dawned on me why the pastry shops in Herrnhut do not make these cookies any more. They are a real labor of love. But hey, that’s what Valentine’s Day is all about!
Since the icing should be spread onto the hearts very thickly, I reduced the sugar in the dough to a minimum. These cookies are delicate and need careful handling; they break easily, especially when still warm. But the payoff is that they melt in your mouth.
2 2/3 cups (13½ ounces/375 g) all-purpose flour
2 sticks (225 g) unsalted butter, chilled
¾ cup (150 g) sugar
Filling and icing:
½ cup red currant or raspberry jelly
2½ cups (300 g) confectioners’ sugar, divided
Red food coloring
50 peeled almond halves
1. Put the flour in a bowl and cut the butter into it with a pastry cutter, or use a food processor, until it becomes a coarse meal. Add the eggs and sugar and blend well. Shape the dough into a ball and place it in an airtight container or in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 1 hour.
2. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F/200 degrees C. Line several baking sheets with parchment paper or with baking mats. Cut the dough into several large chunks and leave all of them except one in the fridge. Dust the work surface with flour and thinly roll out the dough about 1/8 inch (3 mm) thick. Cut out hearts with a cookie cutter and place them on the baking sheet 1 inch (2.5 cm) apart. Gather the dough scraps and place them in the fridge.
3. Bake in the preheated oven for 7 to 8 minutes. Let cool on the baking sheet, then transfer to a cake rack.
4. While the first batch is baking, process the remaining batches of dough the same way as the first. At the end, gather all the dough scraps and roll them out the same way.
5. After the hearts are completely cooled, place a small dab of jelly on half of them and place a second one on top.
6. Mix half of the confectioners’ sugar with just enough water to make a thick smooth icing; it should not drip. In another bowl, mix the rest of the icing with the same consistency. Add a drop of red food coloring.
7. First put the white icing on all the hearts (I used a small brush and a toothpick for spreading). Place an almond half pointing down on each heart. Then put the pink icing on all the hearts. Let dry in a cool place until the icing has completely hardened, which may take up to 12 hours. Store in airtight containers.
Makes about 50 cookies