Saturday, December 24, 2011

Super Joyful Christmas!

After that last post, which was rather sobering, it's time for some gen-you-wine, irreverent, holiday humor.

All my brass friends will love this in particular. (With apologies to Maynard Ferguson.)

(Click on my Christmas greeting, and turn the sound up!)

Merry Christmas!!!!!


For more trumpeting high jinks and hilarity, visit this site (from which I got the above, um, spirited melody):

Friday, December 23, 2011

Seeing Stars at Christmastime

The holiday season is Janus-faced. For every happy emotion, an unhappy one always crouches in the background. Much is said about Christmas being a time of joy, but for many of us, sorrow tempers ebullience. Likewise, we sing of peace and bask in the incandescent glow of our Christmas lights—but turbulence obstructs our hold on that elusive goal.

At least partly, it’s psychological: The brighter the light shines, the darker the shadows appear. At festival time, we strive for big happiness—for ourselves, our children, our loved ones—but “reality” never goes away.

Maybe it’s a family conflict, overt or unconscious, that discomforts our joy. Maybe it’s the stress of trying to be more than we actually are—better chefs and bakers, better gift-givers, better present-wrappers, better card-writers—and always feeling that we fall short. . . . Or maybe someone else is telling us we don’t measure up.

Maybe it’s the guilt we feel about our indulgences: The opulent gifts, the huge, rich dinners, the sweets, the primo liquor, the presents manufactured cheaply overseas, the electric bill, the credit card . . . When people are struggling to pay their rent, when people are starving, when people don’t know how to stop drinking, when people lack the basics of medical care and education, and safe drinking water.

Sometimes it’s the turbulence of regret. I suspect many of us have done things over the holidays we wish to God we could undo. (For example: that office Christmas party, years ago . . .) And each year when Christmas rolls around, you can’t help but remember that mistake. You can’t undo it, and you’ll never forget about it.

Because it’s such a high-energy time, and a unique time of year, with its own scents and trappings, and constellations of family and friends, we remember our Christmases especially. Memories and nostalgia naturally intensify during the winter holidays. The Ghost of Christmas Past is always there, tapping your shoulder, feeding you bittersweet memories of childhood joys, of mom and dad, of grandma and grandpa . . . of people and times passed. They’re gone. And you miss them.

Many of us carry particularly sad memories associated with Christmas, scars that span generations. My grandfather died on a Christmas Eve, and the grandfather of one of my high school friends collapsed and died at Christmas, too. Sue’s grandma died in December of 1932; she had just made up several jars of colored sugar to use for holiday baking projects. Fifty years ago, another friend of mine lost four young cousins in a vehicle-railroad accident right before the holidays.

And this year, death has come suddenly and unfairly once again.

Obviously, suffering happens all throughout the year, but somehow it is much starker given this season’s focus on “peace and joy.” Maybe it’s because we desire peace and joy so strongly this time of year that any lack of it seems worse.

For months, the days have been getting shorter and the nights longer; we’ve had some snow. We’ve had a spell of gray and damp weather, and it’s cold outside and in. Seasonal Affective Disorder goes into effect.

It’s no coincidence that major holidays of most religions occur at the winter solstice: It represents the boundary between shadows and light, death and life, famine and plenty, past and future. The shortest nights of the year are dark and daunting—and the coldest, hardest part of the winter is yet to come—but now the sunlight will be increasing, and for those who are hurting, there can be peace, too: Things will get better.

It’s perverse, in a way, to celebrate Light at the darkest time of the year, but no matter where you’re at, it helps to simply look upward, toward the Light, like the magi did.

How do you define this Light? Is it God, or Jesus? Is it the sun? Is it the highest power of the human spirit, and all the goodwill it can hold? Is it this holy mystery we call Life? . . . It’s up to you.

That stars and lights figure into so many human festivals during this season is appropriate. It seems every religion, current or defunct, has a midwinter festival that celebrates birth or rebirth, hope, light, and life, and urges fellowship, compassion, and charity.

If your decorating, traveling, gift-buying and gift-giving and -getting seem hectic to you; if someone’s getting on your nerves; if there’s not enough time for all the things you “need” to do at the holidays—then stop for a moment and look at the Light.

For me, any light or shiny thing will do, because it’s a symbol. A candle is good. (In church when we’re asked to pray, I often find some light to focus on instead of bowing my head, because it’s more meaningful for me than staring at the floor, or the darkness under my eyelids.)

Take a deep breath, put aside the “do list,” and remember that no one knows whether this day will be our last. Remember what is truly important. Life itself is a most precious gift. Today, tonight, simply being here is a gift.

May you and all your cherished family and friends have a warm, blessed Christmas.


Thanks, once again, to Susan Ferber, for sharing so many of her lovely photos with me.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Family Spingerle Recipes

I’m still groovin’ on the springerles! My new springerle roller still has me all excited!

I’ve already confessed to you that the springerle recipe I use comes out of the 1949 Good Housekeeping Cook Book and not from my forbears, but I have to qualify that by saying that it, too, qualifies as a family recipe, since I got that cookbook from cousin Marguerite’s kitchen when she moved into a nursing home, and it is one of the cherished objects with which I remember her.

However, I do have other recipes available, which I’m going to try sometime. Naturally, it’s hard to try a different recipe, when the one I use works so well, but then again, these are written in Grandma Schroeder’s hand.

For what it’s worth—I have not tested these at all—I’ve photographed them for you.

Great-Grandma Thomas’s Recipe

The first is from Grandma Schroeder’s mother, Wilhelmine Thomas.

Springerle as Mom Made Them

6 eggs—beaten light
3 cup sugar—sifted & added gradually to eggs—place bowl over low flame and beat until very light.
Add 1 teasp. anise—enough flour to make a stiff dough—sift 2 teasp. pwd. hartshorn & 1/2 teasp B.P., roll out & let sit over nite.

Isn’t it interesting that it calls for heating the sugar and eggs? Maybe you need to do that if you use granulated instead of powdered sugar, but anyway, it’s unusual to see that step in a springerle recipe.

You’ll also note it’s a truly old-fashioned recipe, because it uses hartshorn as the leavening agent. Hartshorn, or baker’s ammonia, is ammonium carbonate and was originally derived from the horns of a type of reindeer. Before baking powder became available, it was commonly used in German and Scandinavian baking.

I think it’s interesting that this recipe uses a bit of baking powder in addition to the hartshorn. Best of both worlds—?

A lot of springerle-baking purists insist on using only hartshorn, which you can still find in specialty stores (or something; I’ve never used it). They say it makes the texture of the cookies perfect.

I’ve read that when you cook with hartshorn, you should not eat any raw dough, since the ammonia doesn’t leave until you bake it out. (So—no “springerle cookie dough ice cream,” unless you omit the hartshorn!)

By the way, click here for a post that has pictures of Great-Grandma Thomas's springerle roller.

Josephine Weber’s Recipe

The other recipe is for “anise cookies,” but around here that’s another way of saying “springerle.” This one came from Miss Josephine Weber, who for many years lived across the street from Grandma, in a house that still stands across the street from us.

For those of you who know our neighborhood, Josephine Weber’s home is the one that most recently has been a beauty salon. I’ve blogged about this dear neighbor before.

It might be hard to read, since it’s in pencil, but remember, you can click on any picture on my blog and it will make it bigger.

Here’s what it says:

Josephine Weber’s Anise Cookies

1# pwd sugar
4 eggs
2 teasp. bake pwd.
1# flour
anise seed
lump butter

Here, the interesting thing is that it calls for butter. I’ve seen a few other recipes that use butter, but not a majority. All I can say about it is: Josephine Weber made ends meet by baking cakes, especially angel food cakes, and other goodies, for wealthy uptown people, and she knew her way around a kitchen!

Next year, I’ll have to experiment some, have a “springerle-tasting,” and let you know how these recipes pan out.

Meanwhile, if you try them, I hope you’ll let me know what you think!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

New Springerle Roller

I recently told you about my new/old springerle roller! I’d been looking for a good, wooden, “vintage” one (=“antique”), and we found this new one at an antiques store in Hermann.

I have other rollers, but for some reason or other, they weren’t quite perfect.

My First Roller

My first roller was given to me as a gift—for which I’m eternally grateful, since it got me to start making springerles in the first place. (Think: “gateway drug.”)

It must be a fairly modern roller, not old at all. The carvings are very, ah . . . minimalist. I don’t think they were even technically “carved.” Instead, I think they were created with a Dremel tool or some such. Mass-produced. You can find these types of rollers for a fairly low price online. I suspect it’s, um, “imported.”

The problem with this roller is that I have a hard time figuring out what the pictures are supposed to represent. This carving, I’m pretty sure, is supposed to be of some kind of bird:

And this one, if you use your imagination, could be of a butterfly. . . . Or maybe it’s an owl—?

But this one: You have to let your imagination “go” in order to get anything representational out of it. Sue thinks it looks like a skull-and-crossbones!

Well, maybe. I guess if you spend a lot of time looking at cubistic art, you could figure out what it’s supposed to represent. . . . Or maybe you need to drink a lot of eggnog or some other kind of “Christmas cheer”!

Here’s another carving on that roller that confounds me: Every time I look at it, I think, “Tiki God.”

. . . But I doubt that’s what it’s “supposed” to be. One thing I’m certain of: A Tiki God is not standard Christmas imagery!

My Second Roller

I bought this from the nice lady who sells springerles and rollers each year at the Old Munichburg Oktoberfest. She was at the Hermann Kristkindl Markt this year, too. She’s incredible!

The springerle rolling pins she sells are manufactured by a company called House on the Hill, and you really should check them out. They make reproduction springerle rollers and molds, out of some kind of resin or plastic, which are exact copies of antique wooden originals.

Here’s the pin I have.

Their rollers are ornate and beautiful. And yet . . . they are not wooden. And if you’re like me, and you’re a bit sloppy about reapplying flour or cornstarch to the roller between each “roll,” then the dough tends to stick after a while. And with all those ornate indentations, well . . .

And hey, don’t you just like the feel of wood in your hands? Wouldn’t you rather have a unique, handmade, wooden tool than a plastic one? For me, the answer is “yes” and “yes.”

Hence my continuing search.

My Third Roller

It isn’t really “mine.” Like the family Christmas tree, it’s an heirloom for which I’m only a temporary caretaker.

Dad had this with the stuff that he got from his mom’s house when she passed away. But this past year, he gave it to me: His grandmother’s springerle roller. (Or one of them, anyway.)

I’ve told you about Wilhelmine Thomas before—remember the red cabbage story? Also, hers is one of my favorite lebkuchen recipes.

The deal with this roller is that it’s a historic treasure, delicate; it might even be something she brought with her from Germany—and I don’t want to use it.

At some point (I’m guessing the 1960s), Grandma mounted it onto a simple, fabric-covered piece of cardboard using two tiny brads, and framed it. This means that even in the sixties, Grandma was thinking it was too old to be used, and took it out of service at that time.

It would be pretty cheeky of me to (carefully!) remove the brads and unmount it, then use it for cooking.

Especially since there’s historic springerle dough still stuck on it!

Sue and I joked about this: What if you could take a DNA sample from that fossilized dough and make a clone of Great-Grandma Thomas’s springerles!

But seriously—it’s an old treasure, and I would be heartsick if I tried using it, and the wooden handle split or something. Better to leave it as a museum piece, eh—?

The New Springerle Roller

It’s not as ornate as the ones House on the Hill sells, but (if memory serves) the patterns on this roller seem more like the patterns I recall when I was a little girl, when grandmas and other ladies of their generation were making springerles.

Does that sound funny? I mean, the rollers from House on the Hill are very nice—exquisite—and maybe “too” ornate. The patterns on this roller are a bit simpler.

Who knows—maybe this very roller had belonged to one of my own Central Missouri forbears, and ended up at that antiques store in Hermann!

At any rate, I really love the pictures on this “new” roller. It’s big on animals, which is just right for me. There’s a rooster (which makes me think of old German immigrant churches, and the passages leading up to Matthew 26.75).

There are hooved animals, including an elk or reindeer.

Cooler than that (to my thinking), there’s a nice bushy-tailed squirrel!

And even more remarkable, there’s an insect—a wasp or bee! Yay! (“. . . All creatures, great and small”!)

There are neat plants, too. This looks like a thistle, though with my imagination it could also be an agave, or a rattlesnake master, or something like that.

This might be an edelweiss—what do you think? Or some kind of primrose?

This year, with our bounty of springerle rollers, we made some lovely, lovely cookies, and I’m going to have a great time sharing them!

(By the way, click here for the springerle recipe I use; it’s slightly nontraditional—but hey, I’ve gotten no complaints!)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Gift Idea: TV B Gone

Okay: Let’s say you’ve decided to go out for dinner someplace. Maybe you’ve been driving all day and you want to relax and get a bite to eat. Or maybe you’ve got someone you want to visit with. Like, an out-of-town friend you rarely get to see, but hooray, she’s visiting, and you get to have dinner together. Or maybe you’re lunching alone and are relishing the chance to collect your thoughts for the afternoon’s work. Or maybe you’re having an important conversation with someone, like a client.

And there’s this ignorant television hanging up in the corner of this otherwise quite nice restaurant, flickering and flashing, showing some godawful sad, sensationalistic trash, or some talking-head politics guy whose every word gives you a sour feeling in your stomach.

You know, television programs and the advertising they exist to serve are designed to grab your attention—the change of camera angle every five seconds or less; the rate of flashing; the emphasis on “big” (never subtle) emotions; the pacing of dialogue, the tone of voice. It plays with your monkey mind in ways you’re scarcely aware of—all you know is, it’s hard to get your eyes off the screen.

I’m not joking—and I do encourage us all to educate ourselves about television and how it manipulates our attention, feeds our thoughts, and (I believe) pollutes our culture and damages our democracy. To everyone, I recommend this book: Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, by Jerry Mander. It’s not a new book at all, but what is says is just as relevant today as when it was written. If you don’t believe me, read the Amazon reviews.


THAT was my prologue. The gift idea mentioned in the title of this post, now, should need no explanation, beyond this: It is a handy, keychain-sized universal remote control that only does one thing: It works as a power button on all different types of televisions. It is an “off” switch! Of your very own.

They’re about twenty bucks, batteries are included, and you can get them online here: Cornfield Electronics.

Look, how many times do I tell you to “buy” stuff? Never. But here I am, telling you: You will love having the power to turn off those offensive TVs wherever they may be: The doctor’s office. An otherwise decent restaurant. The waiting room at the service department at your car dealer’s. At the laundromat. Maybe even in the gate area at the airport!

Oh, joy!

I got mine and tried it out at Ruby Thursday’s! I was kind of worried a riot might break out, with people deprived of their TV teats, but no one even noticed the TV had gone black.

And yes, these would make great stocking stuffers!


Special thanks and an Op Op Hurray! to Jane Phillips, who told me about this lovely product and reports great success with it in places ranging from restaurants to the DMV!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Santa Dropped By Early!

It’s a good thing I haven’t made my springerles yet, because this weekend I got a new springerle roller!

Sue and I went to Hermann’s annual Kristkindl Markt—basically a citywide Christmas sale, with craft, antique, and Christmas-doodad vendors at the usual local feste spaces (Hermannhof Festehall, etc.).

While there, we also stopped at one of Hermann’s antique stores, poked around . . . and found each other’s Christmas presents! I found an antique springerle roller—you know, the kind made out of real wood, and carved with actual pretty pictures of recognizable things! (More on this subject soon.)

This one even has a picture of a bug on it! How cool is that!? (Yeah, I think it must be a bee or wasp or some other kind of hymenopteran . . .)

Sue saw it first and showed it to me. She knew I’d been wanting an old springerle roller. Wow, it was kind of pricey, but then it was marked as being circa 1900. (Who knows.) But it’s in good shape, and it’s something I’ll use for years hence.

She got it for me as my Christmas present!

. . . Meanwhile, something had caught Sue’s eye, too: a Voigtländer Vitessa camera, from the 1950s. It was inside a locked display case, so Sue had to get one of the clerks to let her see it. It had the original box and all the original paperwork and instructions and stuff with it. It passed muster—and so that became my gift to Sue!

I don’t generally tell you too much about Sue—because I’m not sure how much she wants you to know about her doin’s. In recent years, her photography skills (which were already excellent) have increased dramatically. She’s always been interested in cameras and photography, and because of her work, she’s become an expert with Photoshop and Lightroom. But her knowledge of photography has been growing in leaps and bounds. I mean, for fun, she reads NAPP publications, Ansel Adams’s books, and all kinds of photography manuals.

Most recently she’s become more interested in film photography. I didn’t realize it, but there’s a bunch of people in the world who are seriously pursuing film photography. I guess, like a lot of other ways of doing things (typing with a typewriter, printing with a letterpress, etc.), now that it’s an obsolete technology, it’s become an art form.

So Sue’s acquired a small collection of old cameras, including twin-lens reflex (like Vivian Maier used), some 35mm cameras, etc. Sue can easily and cheaply develop black-and-white film herself; then, she can scan it, digitally turn it into a positive image, and do miscellaneous corrections with Lightroom and Photoshop.

She’s also been having fun with Lomographic film. So this nifty-cool 1950s German Voigtländer camera will provide her with loads of fun!

I think this camera is especially cool because the lens folds down into the camera body and is protected by two doors that close around it. Pretty nifty, huh?

Truth be told, “gifts” aren’t really my thing. Honestly, my least favorite part of Christmas is the unwrapping of gifts, of things, particularly of store-bought things. I’m pretty bad at picking out gifts for people, and I feel awkward receiving them, especially when there are lots and lots. I guess it’s because I feel like a pretty awful gift-giver, and I feel like I should reciprocate better.

My thing—in case you couldn’t tell—is doing stuff for people. Entertaining, fixing dinners, baking and giving away cookies, and so on. Some people say “I love you,” directly, verbally tell you it and speak it in so many ways; other people give gifts to say it, so giving and receiving gifts is something they understand; some show love by spending quality time with the people who matter to them; some show it through physical touch in all its forms; and others do things, they serve, to express their love.* . . . I guess, at this point in my life at least, the last is my style.

But last weekend, I was more like Santa Claus, and Sue was, too. Fun presents!

Okay, now, back to the cooking . . .


* By the way, these ideas about how people express love aren't my own--they come from Dr. Gary Chapman's bestselling book The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts. Perhaps this would be good reading for you over the holidays.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

We Can Has Lebkuchen!

You know it’s Advent when the house smells like a German bakery! . . . Or better yet, like your Grandmas’ kitchens at Christmastime!

We made two different lebkuchen recipes this week: One is my mom’s current recipe, and the other is my Great-Grandma Thomas’s.

We always have to collect a bunch of wonderful ingredients; local black walnuts, sorghum from the Mennonite store, candied fruits from the “holiday baking aisle” at Schnuck’s, and more.

Mom’s Recipe

The recipe my mom has used for the past several years always gets rave reviews by everyone who eat those cookies. “Best lebkuchen ever!” is the general assessment. No kidding—they’re awesome. This is my first year to try making them. Why? Because Mom said she wasn’t going to bake them this year!

Mom’s recipe is based on one she found in a church-ladies cookbook: The Fruit of the Spirit: A Collection of Recipes by Heisinger Lutheran Home Auxiliary, Jefferson City, Missouri (Kearney, Neb.: Cookbooks by Morris Press, 2001). It appears on page 295 of that book and is named “Leb Cookies.” It was contributed by Goldie Kirchner, who noted that it “was given to my son, Ray, by Herbert Ehrhardt when they worked together at Stockman Feed Store many years ago.”

It’s got butter in it, and the liquid “lift” is provided by buttermilk and baking soda, so it’s got a good buttery richness to it. And who doesn’t like that?

In addition to molasses, it uses brown sugar, while many other recipes call for white.

Mom adjusts the fruits per her own mom’s way of making lebkuchen: It’s about 50 percent candied mixed fruit, 40 percent raisins, 5 percent citron, and 5 percent candied cherries. No, I don’t think these proportions have to be exact.

Here is something else that is a hallmark of both my mom’s and her mom’s lebkuchen: Grandma Renner always ground her mixed candied fruit in a small, hand-cranked meat grinder—the kind you clamp onto a table to use in making sausage.

I remember watching her push that sticky candied fruit into the grinder and turn the crank. What emerged was even stickier than before! But it had a nice, even texture, with much smaller pieces. Her idea, I think, was to distribute the flavors of the candied fruit more evenly.

Another plus is that by grinding the candied fruit, no one has to bite down on a big hunk of candied-whatever. Well—it’s a plus for people who don’t truly like candied mixed fruit.

Grinding the fruit, I noticed, also makes the dough easier to roll and cut.

Great-Grandma Thomas’s Recipe

This was passed down from the mother of my paternal grandmother. Grandma Schroeder’s mom’s name was Wilhelmine Thomas. I’ve told you a charming story about her and her husband, Albert, in an earlier blog post. Albert and Wilhelmine emigrated from Germany in the late 1800s.

We have a lot of different versions of her recipe, since it was used both by my paternal grandmother (naturally) as well as—get this—by my maternal grandmother! Yes, they were neighbors, and Grandma Renner liked and used the recipe.

Grandma Renner was usually careful to credit it as “Mrs. Thomas’s recipe,” but whether or not it’s marked as such, I can identify the recipe at a glance because, for the liquid rising agent, it calls for X tablespoons of baking soda mixed with Y cups of “cold black coffee.”

Also, although Grandma Renner amended the recipe by substituting her own blend of mixed fruit, grinding it with her sausage grinder, Great-Grandma Thomas’s recipe always only called for candied citron and lemon peel, and raisins and currants. No grinding required.

It never called for butter; early versions of it use lard, but most later renditions specify Crisco.

This recipe uses white sugar with the molasses—not brown.

The resulting cookies aren’t as buttery and sweet as the ones my mom makes. They have a darker flavor, and the chunks of fruit are chunkier.

Despite the thoughtful and well-reasoned alterations made by Grandma Renner, as far as I know, Grandma Schroeder did not change her mom’s recipe much . . . although she did write it down in English. Hmm: Maybe her biggest innovation was to decorate the leppies with stuff like candied cherries and colored sprinkles!

As a kid, I probably wouldn’t have liked them without these additions. I’m glad she used them on some of her leppies, because it started me trying and liking lebkuchen at a young age. (Kids can be kind of dense about really good foods, can’t they? I know I was.)

What Kind of Molasses?

When I started making lebkuchen, my first question on all these old recipes was, “Okay, it calls for ‘molasses,’ but what kind of molasses should I use?” I’m a late-twentieth-century gal; I’m used to having more shopping choices than I know what to do with.

I experimented with sorghum (presumably that’s what they had back in the early 1900s), but also regular ol’ Brer Rabbit, as well as blackstrap. (Wow, that batch was dark and distinctive! And the men in the family seemed to enjoy it, in particular.) I don’t think you can go wrong, though I’m sure everyone will have a preference.

Recently, as I reviewed some handwritten versions from Grandma Schroeder, I found this on one sheet: “Be sure to use ‘ripe’ sorghum or else Brer Rabbit brand.” There you go! Sorghum it is.

Then, from my Grandma Renner, I see in the ingredients list: “32 oz. jar Waconia molasses.” (Which—I think—is either a popular cultivar of sorghum, or else a brand of sorghum molasses that is now long gone.)

After all my experimenting, I’ve pretty much decided that real sorghum is the best, for its rich, light flavor.

Did you know that in Germany, honey is the usual sweetener for lebkuhen? Apparently here in the United States, back in our great-grandmothers’ day, sorghum was much less expensive than honey, so that’s why our grandmothers used it. It’s the same with the walnuts: In the Old World, they must have used English walnuts with their milder flavor, but here in Missouri black walnuts have become the tradition—they add a strong, distinctive flavor that we love but which would probably get our Missouri lebkuchen tossed out of a German bakery like so many inedible hockey pucks.

The Verdict!

Oh, come on. You don’t honestly expect me to pronounce one of these recipes “superior” to the other! All I can say is, they are different, but they are more alike than they are different. And I feel rich indeed to have so many good recipes, from so many wonderful mothers and grandmothers, to bake at Christmastime.