From our daily bread to the marzipan-covered wedding cake I made for my cousin based on Henriette Davidis’ 19th-century cookbook (which took me three days), there aren’t many things I have not tried in German baking. Springerle is one of them.
For me, these intricately embossed German cookies have always been pretty Christmas ornaments to look at rather than edibles – too precious, and also too hard, to eat. I don’t know anyone in Germany who makes Springerle or owns the molds that are needed to make them, which might have to do with the fact that Springerle are a south German and Swiss tradition, where I have no family connections.
The holiday season being prime time for Springerle, I thought this year I would finally buy a mold or two and try them. Well, it did not happen – too much else to do. But, I got half-way there. I discovered that there is a lively Springerle-making culture here in the United States and decided that making my own could wait. Instead of baking in the kitchen I talked to several Springerle specialists.
When I initially looked for molds I came across Ken Hamilton, “The Springerle Baker”. A former baking and pastry professional, he replicates molds from historic wooden models that have often been in a family for generations.
Ken has devoted a section of his website to these historic molds and rolling pins. It is like a virtual Springerle museum. Several families in Germany and the United States have given Ken photos of heirloom molds along with their stories. It turns out that biblical and Christmas motifs, for which Springerle are usually known, make up only a small portion of the molds. Many of them show scenes of daily life, festivities like weddings, country living, gardening, plants, and animals.
Each of those handed-down molds is more beautiful and detailed than the other. Most of them are carved from fruit trees such as apple or pear. Some of the molds, like the Alphabet Board dating back to the 1800s, are carved on both sides. This type of board was a learning tool for young children.
From Ken’s website I stumbled upon a Facebook group devoted entirely to Springerle making, where members show off their stunning edible pieces of art and discuss trouble-shooting. Springerle are not always white, they can be made in many different colors and flavors.
Patrice Romzick is a member of that group. Like Ken Hamilton, she turned her Springerle passion into a business, Springerle Joy. Although she has German ancestors and grew up in Detroit where her “mother religiously bought Springerle for our Christmas cookie plates, the Springerle cookies were hard and the primitive images were difficult to see.”
40 years later, she was re-introduced to Springerle cookies on a visit to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where she bought Springerle molds and beautiful raspberry-flavored Springerle from a booth at Lancaster Central Market. Today, Patrice distributes Swiss-made Springerle molds in North America, and also holds Springerle-making classes.
The Springerle cookies that made Patrice change her mind were from The Springerle House, where I had just ordered some Springerle. Small world! Unlike the Springerle I know from Germany, I don’t risk breaking my teeth eating them. The secret behind this softer consistency, and the big difference between German and American Springerle, as I learned from Heather Botchlet, is butter.
Heather, the owner of The Springerle House, learned Springerle-making from her mother who in turn learned it from her mother. But although Springerle had been made in this German-American family for 150 years, Heather was the first in her family to turn Springerle-making into a business. They ship anywhere in the world and get orders even from Germany.
Springerle-making is a year-round operation at The Springerle House, peaking on all major holidays, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. Anise, the traditional Springerle flavor, is the most popular, but Heather offers the cookies also in other flavors, including lemon and orange.
Margie Gibson, who divides her time between southern Germany and the US, told me about her long trial and error to find the perfect Springerle recipe. Margie’s mother and grandmother baked them every year, almost always the Saturday after Thanksgiving, from the recipe her great-grandmother had brought with her from her tiny village south of Stuttgart when she emigrated in the 1880s. “I was always in the kitchen during the Springerle preparation, helping with the mixing and cutting out. I still use my great grandmother’s Springerle rolling pin.”
Margie’s mother died in 2003. “That could have broken the chain of Springerle bakers in my family but Christmas was just not Christmas without Springerle and Lebkuchen (gingerbread).”
Yet Margie’s first Springerle turned rock-hard after ageing. To make them softer, she added melted butter, a trick she learned from her mother. The Springerle were softer but rose unevenly and she could not figure out why. Margie even took several of the leaning Springerle to a pastry shop owner in Germany and asked for advice. “He only said the cookies were the best Springerle he had ever eaten and told me I shouldn’t worry about the rise.” Eventually, after consulting with the test kitchen at King Arthur Flour, Margie found the solution: using clarified butter instead of regular butter. The Springerle came out perfect.
Both Ken Hamilton and Patrice Romzick agree that there is an increasing interest in Springerle molds, and not just among German-Americans. “There is a trend in people wanting to re-establish old family traditions,” says Patrice, “and others wanting to establish new ones.” Heather Botchlet from The Springerle House says she wants people to continue the Springerle tradition, that’s why she gives away her recipe.
If I ever get a bit homesick, it’s usually around this time of the year. I miss all the traditions around German Christmas. After tasting the soft and delicious Springerle made right here in Pennsylvania, however, I feel that German tradition is very much alive!