story & photos by Bakery Boy
Think of them as sweet little woodcarvings that you can eat. Springerle cookies — thick, cake-like, anise-flavored cutouts topped with intricate three-dimensional figures — date from medieval times in southern Germany. Yet you can make these “picture cookies” fresh right now wherever you are. All you need are a handful of molds and a few helpful tips from Connie Meisinger.
Connie Meisinger is the queen of Springerle (pronounced SHPRENG-er-luh) and an enthusiastic expert on the subject. Based in Elmhurst, Illinois, just west of Chicago, she owns House on the Hill, Inc., which sells more than 500 different Springerle mold designs. Pressed firmly into rolled-out cookie dough, the molds create embossed images such as birds, flowers, pine cones, fruit, harps, angels, snowmen, stars, baskets, houses, trees, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and more. Rolling pin versions create a variety of images with a single pass over flattened dough.
I met Connie when she taught a Springerle making class at Susan Green’s Birmingham Bake & Cook Company near my home. Connie travels extensively to tell her story, share her recipes, demonstrate her techniques, and promote her line of Springerle molds (for a schedule of appearances visit houseonthehill.net/news-and-events.) She has been on TV shows including NBC Chicago on WMAQ Channel 5, ABC News Saturday Morning on WLS Channel 7, and The Martha Stewart Show on the Hallmark Channel. During presentations she tells her story while rolling dough, dusting molds with flour, pressing shapes into dough, cutting and transferring cookies to baking sheets, baking them and eventually letting everyone try samples.
Connie became an avid Springerle baker when her aging grandmother was no longer able to make the old-fashioned treats that were eagerly anticipated by her family during the holidays. She scrounged up harder-to-find key ingredients including anise oil and hartshorn (ammonia carbonate today but formerly a preparation made from ground-up deer horns) to go with the more readily available flour, sugar, eggs and butter in grandma Nini’s recipe. She found a few factory-machined molds that didn’t quite satisfy but that eventually led to her current career as a mold designer and distributor. Her extended family, glad to the see the tradition continue, rejoiced at the tasty results and gobbled every cookie she made.
On a lark in 1993 Connie submitted her recipe to the Chicago Tribune’s annual cookie contest. She was named one of several winners and got mentioned in the newspaper. Caroline Kallas, the owner of a little homegrown Springerle mold business called House on the Hill in nearby Lombard, read the article and contacted Connie to invite her to check out the merchandise. “I did, and I was hooked,” Connie says. “I became a frequent customer, collecting as many molds as I could afford. Caroline died in 1999, and three years later my husband and I bought House on the Hill from her husband. We’ve been running it ever since.”
The molds look like they’re hand carved from solid wood just as they were centuries ago. Modern versions, though still handcrafted, are made from resin and wood composite. Most are replicas of antique carvings, giving them a historic and traditional appearance. “Bakers in guilds back then had to be excellent woodcarvers too, so they could create their own molds,” Connie says. “When a lot of German families immigrated to America in the late 1800s, they couldn’t always bring big things like furniture, but they brought cherished cookie molds made of clay or wood or metal. Many of those heirlooms are in museums and private collections now. Sometimes we’ll borrow an antique mold from a museum and replicate the historic design to add to our selection. We also have a woodcarver create new designs.”
During her classes Connie offers interesting tidbits and helpful hints. Traditional Springerle cookies are flavored with anise, she notes, but she also uses orange, lemon and almond and is experimenting with a cherry-almond combination. It’s best to make them after the first freeze, she says, when humidity is low and the dough stays dry so it doesn’t stick in the molds. She says symbols play a big part in Springerle designs, ranging from pomegranates (once given as wedding gifts because their many seeds represented fertility) to depictions of great cathedrals (created as souvenirs for travelers who visited renowned religious sites).
By the time her class ended and I was nibbling a one of the pretty little white works of edible art, I could hardly wait to get home and try a batch of my own. If you’re interesting in making Springerle cookies and need some molds to get started, order some from the House on the Hill website, which has pictures of each design.
I recently learned that in German the word Springerle means “jumper” as in a jumping horse. I wonder if the unique style of cookie got that name because jumping horses were once depicted on them. Or because pulverized deer horn (deer jump too, right?) was once a key ingredient. Or because the dough “springs” out of the deeply carved molds or “springs” up as it bakes. I also read an account of how medieval Yule festivals among pagan Germanic tribes involved animal sacrifices in hopes of appeasing the gods into sending a mild winter, and that poor people who couldn’t afford to kill their livestock instead created token sacrifices in the form of animal-shaped breads or cookies.
I don’t know the definitive answer, if there is one, but I plan to ask Connie about it the next time she comes to town to teach her Springerle baking class. Meanwhile, I’ll just enjoy some cookies and hope you do too.
650 West Grand Avenue, Unit 110, Elmhurst, IL 60126
630-279-4455 or toll free (in the U.S.) 877-279-4455
See a catalog of Springerle molds and order online at houseonthehill.net
Find out where Connie Meisinger will be demonstrating Springerle techniques by visiting houseonthehill.net/news-and-events