My Childhood Christmas Cookies Are the Best You'll Ever Bake
Brown butter, sweet jam, and a hint of cardamom make these Bavarian Spitzbuben unforgettable.
In the scorching Australian summer of 1982, when the weather reached a record-breaking 105°F in Sydney, three catastrophic events occurred that promised to explode my four-year-old brain and ruin Christmas: Big Bird stopped speaking German, our Christmas decorations melted straight off the tree, and our holiday cookies suffered untold casualties from the heat.
Six months earlier, my parents and I had emigrated from the storybook Bavarian Alps in Germany (where my grandfather yodeled and wore lederhosen for real) to the working-class suburbs of western Sydney. It was physically and culturally as far away from my hometown as you could get, but to my parents, Australia was the promised land of opportunity, sun, beaches, and cute marsupials.
A few months later, a single shipping container of our belongings arrived that held, among other things, our trusty Grundig television, traditional Christmas wax figurines, and cookbooks filled with nostalgia. We used those books to try and re-create a taste of our German homeland that summer, but I remember hating everything.
I was traumatized that the cast of Sesame Street now spoke a language I didn’t understand (it was a German TV!), that angels could actually burn from the tree, and that dough could catch on countertops like sticky tar. But we pushed on. With a spray bottle of water MacGyvered to a pedestal fan to cool us, my pregnant mother and I stood in our tiny, furnace-like kitchen and baked gingery lebkuchen whose chocolate glaze melted, coconut macaroons that went chewy from the humidity, and vanillekipferl that wouldn’t stay cold long enough to roll into perfect crescents.
There was one cookie that withstood the hellish Australian heat, though. One cookie to rule them all: the spitzbube. The dainty little brother of the jammy linzer, the spitzbube is a small slip of a thing that can be hoovered down in just two bites. Literally translated as “cheeky boy” (and nothing to do with ladies, as its phonetic pronunciation might suggest), the cookie is Swiss in origin, but given a shared border, the style was adopted by southern Germans. Typically a round butter-cookie sandwich with fluted edges, the top half of the cookie contains a cutout to reveal the glossy jam inside.
It is the cookie that all the women in my family have baked for generations, and I baked those cheeky boys with my mother and sister every year, always using the same recipe and same raspberry jam. But they especially sparked joy that perilous first Australian Christmas Eve, a particular treat after our dinner fondue, which made both our insides and outsides sweat. By year two, we figured out what all Aussies know to be true about Christmas—it is best spent at the beach eating cold ham, prawns, and chilled mangoes, while getting sand in your bathers.
Holiday baking connected me to my heritage—to the grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins we left behind. When I moved out of home at age 22, I continued turning out batches every December, sharing the bible of ’buben with colleagues and friends.
In my early thirties, as a more confident cook having worked in food magazines for a decade, I boldly experimented with my spitzbuben. I tried different nut flours, spices, and jams. I cut out star shapes and heart shapes and square shapes instead of round shapes. I went completely off-piste and made mini versions of Deb Perelman’s extraordinary pretzel linzers with salted caramel filling from her book Smitten Kitchen Every Day: Triumphant and Unfussy New Favorites, a salty-sweet success.
And yet, the biggest revelation by far in the years of experimentation was using browned butter in the dough. It affords the cookies such a robust potency. Match that with the intensity of cardamom, plus a jam like apricot or cherry, and you have a cookie to stop folks in their tracks. It is my favorite version.
Now that I am based in the U.S., I’m back to baking spitzbuben in a climate that is more conducive to working with pastry at Christmastime. I live closer to my Bavarian relatives than I have in decades but far away from my Australian family. No matter, though—we’re all baking spitzbuben this Christmas. The cookie will still connect us.