Plätzchen: decoding German Christmas biscuits

Article published on Dec. 14, 2012
Article published on Dec. 14, 2012
I woke up on 1 December to see the first downy white flakes of snow floating past my window in Göttingen. A few hours, some steaming mulled wine and ten frozen fingers later, and it was time to make the traditional christmas biscuits

Plätzchen, which lit­er­ally means ‘a lit­tle place’ but comes from the word Platz mean­ing ‘round flat cake’, are a main­stay of ad­vent in Ger­many. They are the culi­nary equiv­a­lent of the wreath on the table and the kids car­olling on the street. Nonethe­less, plätzchen (pro­nounced 'ple­htschyun') are not the di­rect equiv­a­lent of their British cousins, mince pies, and the dif­fer­ences are enough to con­fuse an eas­ily be­mused Brit.

Just a bis­cuit?

My be­muse­ment grows when I ask good old uncle google for a few recipe sug­ges­tions. While I had been ex­pect­ing vari­a­tions on a theme (like ten dif­fer­ent sets of in­struc­tions for mak­ing grandma’s fa­mous cin­na­mon spice cook­ies), I am con­fronted by a be­wil­der­ing array of very dif­fer­ent recipes, from choco­late crispy cakes to vanilla curls and cin­na­mon stars. What on earth is meant to bind all these colour­ful in­di­vid­u­als into one fam­ily?

I ex­plain my con­fu­sion to a Ger­man friend as we sam­ple my first batch of vanilla curls. Hence comes les­son num­ber one. ‘Plätzchen are just bis­cuits. Kekse, you know?’ she ex­plains gen­tly. I feel sure I am miss­ing some­thing – what’s so christ­massy about bis­cuits? Per­haps it has more to do with my own British her­itage than any­thing else though. For some­one who grew up in a land where a rich tea bis­cuit dunked in earl grey is con­sid­ered the pin­na­cle of per­fec­tion, the idea of rel­e­gat­ing our di­ges­tive friends to one month of the year seems bizarre. How­ever, that isn’t to say that there is noth­ing par­tic­u­lar about plätzchen. Clas­sic plätzchen are cut out in dif­fer­ent christ­massy shapes, trans­form­ing the kitchen into a snows­cape of rein­deer, snow­men and stars.

The point of plätzchen is the ritual of baking – of gathering with friends

Les­son num­ber two: the proof of the pud­ding is not in the eat­ing. What I had failed to grasp about plätzchen is that the point here is not the fin­ished prod­uct. The point is the process. In con­trast to that Ger­man es­tab­lish­ment, home­made cake, you rarely bake plätzchen alone in prepa­ra­tion for vis­i­tors. And you do not, re­peat not, buy them from the su­per­mar­ket. The point of plätzchen is the rit­ual of bak­ing – of gath­er­ing with friends, heat­ing and shar­ing mulled wine (Glühwein), tak­ing it in turns to stir, knead, roll, taste. As with the bis­cuits we re­mem­ber bak­ing in our child­hood, it doesn’t mat­ter if some end up wonky, or a bit burnt. You’ll just eat those ones more quickly, to de­stroy the ev­i­dence.

Recipe: Plätzchen


250g flour

210g but­ter, soft­ened

80g sug­ar

2 pack­ets (about 15g) vanilla sug­ar

100g ground al­monds

Vanilla sugar/icing sugar to sprin­kle on top

- In­vite friends over- Heat up some mulled wine while wait­ing for them to ar­rive- Put all the in­gre­di­ents, other than the vanilla sugar/icing sugar for sprin­kling into large mix­ing bowl and take turns to stir, then knead to a dough - Put the mix­ture in the fridge for half an hour - Pre­heat the oven to 175⁰ C

- Form cres­cents out of the dough

- Bake for twenty min­utes, till the bis­cuits are golden

- Leave to cool for just a cou­ple of min­utes be­fore sprin­kling with icing sugar

- Curl up with friends and plätzchen on the sofa to watch the Ger­man Christ­mas clas­sic Three Hazel­nuts for Cin­derella ('Drei Haselnüsse für As­chenbrödel')

Im­agess: main (cc) christ­mas plätzchen (cc) wiki­me­dia; in-text (cc) cran­berry plätzchen (cc) He­do­nistin on flickr/ of­fi­cial site; freshly baked plätzchen (cc) wkuet­ing/ Wolf­gang Küting/ kueting.​de/ flickr