Working in an Alsatian bakery at Christmastime is a great way to develop your forearm muscles, the ones required for whisking egg whites or cream. Ask chef Jacquy Pfeiffer, who founded the French Pastry School in Chicago and was featured in the 2010 documentary “Kings of Pastry.” When he began his pastry apprenticeship in Strasbourg at the age of 15, he did not have those muscles. One cold December day his boss told him it was time to begin testing some sponge cake recipes for the many yule logs the bakery would be producing during the holiday season. He ordered Jacquy to whip 20 eggs with 600 grams of sugar – a half batch.
The boss, whose name was Jean Clauss, was a cruel and difficult taskmaster, and he knew that 40 eggs would be too much for his young apprentice. “I whipped for two or three minutes and then I couldn’t go on,” Pfeiffer recounts. “I didn’t even have the muscles for that action. When I had to stop whisking I was sorely abused by Jean Clauss. But by the second year of my apprenticeship, I had built up my forearm muscles sufficiently for Jean Clauss to put me in charge of all of the Christmas yule log sponges. By then I could whip 40 batches of 40 eggs each in a row without any problem.”
A land of tradition
Alsatians, a disciplined lot, are big on tradition, and the bakers in this beautiful region bordering the Rhine in eastern France, where Jacquy comes from, know that this is good for business. They help keep those traditions alive every year by making several types of special Christmas pastries, like the yule logs Jacquy produced. Whether a baker specializes in bread or pâtisserie, come December he makes these much-anticipated specialties by the truckload, and villages up and down the region will be redolent with the spicy and buttery aromas of cookies and cakes in the oven.
Christmas in Alsace begins early in the month. On Dec. 6 children celebrate St. Nicolas Day — St. Nicolas being the patron saint of schoolchildren. He leaves presents in their shoes, and children look forward to the special pastries they’ll eat for breakfast. Called manela or manala, depending on what part of Alsace you come from, these are small brioches shaped like a little man (manela means “little man” in Alsatian) and decorated with raisins.
Christmas cookies, called bredele de Noël, are also a big deal. Jacquy’s father, who had a bakery in their small village of Marlenheim, about 12 miles from Strasbourg, made tons of them every year. From the time he was a little boy Jacquy would help in the bakeshop for hours on end, Edith Piaf blaring on the village loudspeakers in the background. Bredele come in many shapes and flavors; some are made with butter cookie doughs that are piped, some are sablé doughs that are rolled out and cut into shapes — stars and hearts, pretzels and rounds, crescent moons and candy canes and more; other more rustic batters, like coconut macarons, are spooned or piped onto the baking sheets. Among the most iconic Alsatian Christmas cookies are the zimtsterne, or cinnamon star, a spiced star-shaped almond-meal cookie glazed with royal icing; leckerli, a square spiced cookie dusted with powdered sugar; and the S-shaped, chocolate-dipped spritz cookies.
In September Jacquy’s dad would already be working on his Christmas gingerbread cookies, another centuries-old Alsatian Christmas tradition. There are two types of gingerbread, the cookies made from a stiff dough that can be made ahead, and a cake-like gingerbread made from a batter and baked in loaf pans like pain d‘épices. When making the cookies, he’d roll out the dough (made with sugar, flour, honey and spices) and cut shapes, then bake them in a low oven until hard; with so much sugar and honey in the dough, they’d burn if baked at too high a temperature. Then he’d glaze them with a sugar icing, wrap them and put them away. Within 10 days they’d soften up in their packaging, due to the fact that honey is a hydroscopic sugar, meaning that it absorbs humidity. At this point the gingerbread could be eaten, but it would keep well until the holidays and beyond. This type of pastry, known as a pain de voyage, or traveler’s bread, has been around since the Middle Ages. Since they don’t get stale or spoil, travelers going on long journeys by coach could take them along for sustenance.
An Alsatian Christmas bread called berawecka, another pain de voyage, is a rich and dense fruitcake made with a great deal of dried fruit, macerated in alcohol, spiced with cinnamon and cloves and held together with a very small amount of bread dough. Sliced thin, it’s served with coffee or tea, and it’s a favorite with hikers and skiers, who carry it in their rucksacks for quick energy. Pierre Zimmermann, an Alsatian baker from the village of Schnersheim, calls the berawecka Alsace’s own energy bar.
Alsatian bakers also make hundreds of stollens during the holiday season. The dough is rich, a sort of cross between a brioche, a kugelhopf and a panettone. Filled with nuts and dried fruit, the stollen is shaped to look like the baby Jesus swaddled in cloth. There’s enough acidity in the dough to allow the bread to keep for up to three months.
A celebrated Buche de Noel
Practically every Alsatian family will treat themselves to a decorated cake at Christmas, which is why Pfeiffer was so busy developing his forearm muscles at Jean Clauss’ boulangerie/pâtisserie. The bûche de Noël is probably the most popular Christmas cake. It’s a sponge roulade filled with mousseline – a mixture of pastry cream and buttercream. Bakers make them in many flavors — plain and almond, hazelnut and pistachio, praline, chocolate and even coconut.
Holiday traditions in France continue through the New Year and on to Epiphany, the 6thof January, and Alsace is no exception. On that day families eat a pastry called galette des rois, or king’s cake. It’s a puff pastry filled with almond cream, and in it the baker hides a little porcelain (or plastic) figure called a fève (because it was traditionally a bean). Whoever gets the slice of cake with the fève gets to be king (or queen) for the night. In Alsatian families tensions can run high when the cake is being cut, as parents in this part of France are strict and it’s a big deal when a kid gets the chance to boss them around. “In our family we were so competitive that my mom made us get under the table when she cut the galette des rois,” says Jacquy, “just in case the knife hit the fève and one of us noticed.”
Zimtsterne (Star-shaped Cinnamon Cookies)
Zimtsterne are thick, chewy cinnamon-flavored almond cookies coated with royal icing. The dough is a simple mixture of almond flour, sugar, cinnamon and egg white rolled out between pieces of parchment, coated with royal icing and cut into star shapes. It’s a sticky dough, but if you roll it thick and dip your cookie cutter in water as instructed, you’ll be able to work with it. At the French Pastry School all ingredients are scaled in metric weights; this, Jacquy Pfeiffer insists, is the most precise way to bake. Try it and you’ll find that not only is it more accurate, it simplifies baking.
- Using a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, mix all the ingredients together delicately until they come together into a firm dough. It should be firm enough to be rolled easily with a rolling pin, but it will be tacky. If the dough is too soft, adjust by adding a little almond flour, and if the dough is too hard, adjust by adding a little egg white. The dough can be rolled right away or left to rest for 2 hours in the refrigerator. This will allow the almond flour to absorb and retain moisture, resulting in a moister cookie.
- Divide the dough into 3 batches. Place a piece of parchment or a silicone mat on your work surface and sprinkle lightly with almond flour (to facilitate lifting off the cut out cookies). Place a batch of dough on top and gently press down. Place another sheet of parchment paper over the dough and roll the dough to a thickness of just under ½ inch (1 cm). Remove the top piece of parchment.
- Make the royal icing by mixing the 3 ingredients with a rubber spatula until the mixture looks like toothpaste; if you under-mix it, the icing will look glossy and will not hold up; if you over-mix it, the extra air will make it porous and dry, and it will not be shiny. Using a metal offset spatula, spread a 1/16-inch layer of royal icing on the dough.
- Using a cookie cutter, cut star shaped cookies and place them on a greased cookie sheet or a cookie sheet lined with greased parchment or a Silpat silicone mat. Try to cut the cookies right next to each other so that you will not have too much waste. Dip the cutter into a bowl of warm water to facilitate cutting and prevent the dough from sticking to the cookie cutter. You may need to ease the dough out of the cookie cutters by sliding the tip of a paring knife between the cookie cutter edge and the dough. Cut the leftover dough into shapes (such as smaller stars or diamonds) and place on a separate baking sheet (they will bake faster than the larger stars). Another option is to rework the dough once by adding some almond flour and re-rolling it.
- Place the baking sheets with the cut out cookies in the freezer for 30 minutes. This will do two things: it will cause condensation on the icing, which will result in shinier cookies; and it will freeze the center of the dough, resulting in moist, chewy cookies with crusty edges.
- Bake at 375F for 10 to 15 minutes, until the royal icing is light golden brown. Remove from the heat and allow to cool completely. Store the cookies in an airtight container. They will stay moist in the center for weeks.
Yield: about 3 pounds cookies (the number depends on the size of your cookie cutter; a large star cutter yields approximately 4 dozen cookies)
Note: Almond powder is the same product as almond flour — whole untoasted almonds that blend to a powder in a food processor. Should you run out of almond powder, you can always make your own.
Photos: Top, buche de Noel. Credit: Studio Pygmalion
Top Right: Chef Jacquy Pfeiffer. Credit: Paul Strabbing
Bottom Right: Pfeiffer’s wrapped gingerbread. Credit: Jeff Bohler, Studio Pygmalion