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The Legend of Springerle

The Benson family of Brookings likes their Christmas cookies picture perfect. Every year, Leah Benson rolls out an embossed cookie called springerle, which means “little knight” or “jumping horse,” using a special rolling pin carved with pictures.

Springerle originated in southwestern Germany. “The legend is that back then, the peasants were so poor that they could not afford to give gifts. To celebrate the winter solstice they would carve the gift they wanted to give into a piece of dough, let it dry, bake it and give it to their loved one. Most carvings were things of nature because they worshipped Mother Earth,” says Benson, who has researched the ancient cookie and teaches classes about it at medieval re-enactment fairs. “The dough was leavened with hartshorn, which is a powder that comes from inside a deer’s antler. Today we use baking powder.”

Benson learned about springerle from her grandmother. “She always made these cookies with a special rolling pin that was handed down through the generations. I started collecting these rolling pins when I was 40,” Benson says. Rolling the dough with a springerle pin or pressing it with a carved mold creates pictures on the cookies — some more intricate than others. “Most of the modern rolling pins have simple nature designs, although I do have one very expensive one with the life of Christ carved into its 24 panels,” Benson says.

Her grandmother’s recipe creates thick, mixer-challenging dough. Benson recommends draping a kitchen towel over the back of the mixer to avoid spraying flour and powdered sugar. After mixing and rolling, the unbaked cookies must dry for 24 hours to preserve the pictures through baking. The cookies bake at a low temperature, resulting in hard, pale-colored treats perfect for dunking in coffee.

Many families bake springerle at Thanksgiving and save them until Christmas to allow the flavor to develop, but Benson’s family eats them right away because they prefer a softer texture. Rolling thicker cookies or baking for less time results in a softer cookie as well, but beware of rolling them too thick. You’ll get cookies that are “humped up and cracked and kind of ugly,” Benson says.


 

Springerle is a German tradition that became a staple of Christmas for many South Dakota families.

Springerle

4 medium eggs, separated

1 pound powdered sugar

3 cups flour with 1/4 teaspoon baking powder added

1/8 teaspoon anise oil extract, or flavoring of your choice

Using an electric mixer, beat egg whites in a large bowl until stiff peaks form. In a separate bowl, beat egg yolks for five minutes until light and lemon-colored. Add beaten yolks to egg whites and whip for three minutes. Gradually sift powdered sugar into egg mixture and add anise oil. Slowly add flour and baking powder until dough is stiff, smooth and velvety. You may need to knead in the last of the flour by hand.

Divide the dough into 3 or 4 pieces. On a well-floured surface, roll out each piece 3/8-inch thick using a regular rolling pin. Using a springerle pin, roll across the dough to create imprints. Cut cookies apart and place onto ungreased cookie sheets close together but not touching. Cover with a light kitchen towel. Allow them to dry for 12 hours, then flip to let the undersides dry for another 12 hours.

Flip cookies right side up and bake at 250 degrees for 45 minutes. They may turn tan on the bottom, but should not brown.

Editor’s Note: This story is revised from the November/December 2013 issue of South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call (800) 456-5117.

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