By TOM YATES
Before my family moved back to the States, our Christmases in Vienna, Austria were filled with a hodgepodge of American, German, and Austrian traditions. Tucked away in our five-story duplex apartment, we absorbed the mixed Bavarian traditions in our own American way. It was all that I knew, so I went with the flow. Santa Claus didn’t exist. We lived in a snowy world filled with St. Nickolas, Krampus (the anti-St. Nickolas), and the Christkind (the Christ Child gift-bringer).
In mid-November, the Austrian Christmas Markets took center stage. Almost every main public square housed a market. While Frau Olga and I shopped the regular markets daily for the basic stuff we needed, the Christmas Markets were different. The glorious music, greenery, and religious icons were mere backdrops for the endless displays of ornaments, chocolates, marzipan, and cookies. Vienna bloomed during the Christmas season. Hand in hand, mitten in mitten, Frau Olga and I would make our way through the frantic streets and crowded trolleys of Vienna in search of the markets. Occasionally, when the aromas were too much to bear, we’d pause for hot roasted chestnuts sold by curbside vendors. Served straight from glowing hot grills and tossed into small paper bags, the heavenly warm chestnut steam soothed the bitter winter air. As a kid, I never had much time to take it all in. As a mitten-tied extension of Frau Olga’s arm, I spent most of my time being pulled and yanked out of harm’s way. Still, there were stolen moments for chocolates and chestnuts.
As strange as it might seem, our home didn’t reflect the spirit of the public celebrations wafting throughout the city. Whether my father followed his interpretation of tradition or used it as an excuse, we didn’t decorate for Christmas. No tree. No stockings. Nothing. There were hints and nibbles along the way. On St. Nickolas Eve (December 5th), my brother and I would put our largest pairs of shoes or boots outside our apartment door hoping they’d be filled with really good stuff. Of course, that all depended on Krampus, the mean evil-horned-red-tongued beastly sidekick of St Nickolas. Following tradition, on December 5th, he and St Nickolas visited towns and villages throughout Austria to ask all the children if they’d been good or bad during the previous year. If they answered incorrectly, Krampus chased them down with his big crooked stick to beat them. Merry Christmas. Thankfully, he never darkened our doorstep. That said, we still had to fess up to our goodness or badness. My brother’s boots were usually filled with a mixed bag of good and evil. Sticks. Rocks. Coal. Candy. I fared a little better. Because my boots were too small to hold much of anything, they were always filled with liquor-filled chocolate figurines wrapped in brightly colored crinkled foil. Chomp the head and drink the booze. Yep. Bliss.
When Christmas Eve finally rolled around, it was like any other night. Frau Olga prepared supper and we’d help clean up the mess before going about our business of being boys. When I took to my bed on Christmas Eve, I knew the drill. Cold room. Cold bed. Closed door. Shuttered window. Darkness. Christmas Eve. In my anxious pretend sleep, I could hear things happening. Every year, the clatter eventually faded into white noise before giving way to the gentle smell of Frau Olga’s Christmas Linzer cookies seeping through the cracks of my tall bedroom door.
The next morning, like magic, a fully-decorated Christmas tree sat smack dab in the middle of the living room. Beneath the molten hot multicolored bulbs and dangling wrinkled tinsel, unwrapped gifts and toys spilled from the base of the glowing tree. Amid the Christmas litter, when the dust cleared, Frau Olga’s Linzer cookies left for the Christkind were always left untouched.
I guess my dad never cared for Christmas cookies.
Our win. Wrapped in early morning glee, we laughed and played under poofs of powdered sugar.
Austrian Christmas Linzer Cookies
Linzer cookies or Linzer “Eyes” are a derivative of the iconic Linzertore, one of the oldest known tortes created in the 17th century. Using the same dough recipe as the torte ( flour, butter, egg, toasted almonds or hazelnuts), the cookies are small sandwich cookies filled with jam peeking through cutouts. Traditionally, the cutouts were small round holes (Linzer eyes). Nowadays, Linzer cookies and their cutouts can be any shape possible.
After toasting 2 cups of raw whole almonds and letting them cool to room temperature, I ground them in a food processor until they resembled finely crumbled flour. In a small bowl I combined 2 cups flour, 2/3 cups ground almond flour, 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon, a pinch of allspice, freshly ground nutmeg, 1/2 teaspoon baking powder, and 1/4 teaspoon salt. In a separate bowl, I beat 2/3 cups sugar with 2 sticks of softened unsalted butter until the mixture was light and fluffy before adding 1 egg, lemon zest, and 1 teaspoon of pure vanilla extract.
Adding 1/2 cup of the flour at time, I incorporated the flour mixture with the buttered sugar, kneaded it a few times to pull it together into a soft pliable dough, and divided it into two 1 1/2 inch thick discs, After wrapping each disc in plastic wrap, I slid them into the refrigerator to chill overnight.
The next morning, I let the dough relax on the counter for 30 minutes before rolling out the dough about 1/8 inch thick. So, I had a fancy Linzer cookie cutter with a bottom cutter and a top cutter for the cutouts. The little things. After cutting half of the dough into stars for the bottoms, I used the same cookie cutter with the star-shaped cutout insert to cut the other half of the dough into toppers.
I transferred the tops and bottoms to parchment-lined baking sheets and slid them into a preheated oven to bake for 10-12 minutes. When they were lightly golden brown, I pulled them from the oven and carefully placed them onto racks to cool. When they were completely cooled, I inverted the bottom cookies and spread them with 1 teaspoon of seedless raspberry jam. After dusting the tops with confectioners sugar, I carefully sandwiched the cookies together and allowed the glistening jam to gently squirt through the small star-shaped cutouts. Spiced crunchy Christmas cookies with sweet sticky jam topped with soft powdered snow.
A Linzer lullaby.
This article also appears on pages 10-11 of the December 2016 printed edition of the Hamburg Journal. For more Hamburg area news, subscribe to the Hamburg Journal weekly digital newsletter.