As 2016 comes to a close, I take some time to reflect on the year that was. We have lost many icons this past year, and on a more personal note, I lost my last remaining grandparent. My Oma died this past summer and, with her, I lost the remaining grandparent-granddaughter dynamic that I have enjoyed and appreciated for the past 28 years. As I dwell on this loss, I try not to dwell on any regrets that I may or may not have. Fortunately, I was VERY lucky to be able to spend lots of days with her when I was younger, learning from her and, let’s be honest, letting her spoil me ;)
Being the avid baker that I am, I was eager to learn from both my grandmothers. I learned how to make buns (in the German Mennonite tradition, we call these zweiback) and helped bake numerous other things as well. When my grandmothers stopped making them, whether due to living arrangements or health concerns, I decided to try my hand at them, hoping one day to replicate what they could do after 50+ years of baking and cooking for their husbands and families. I have to admit, the first time I tried, they were just not very good. However, I was lucky enough that they were both alive to give me the feedback I needed to make them better.
If we fast forward a few years, my bun making gets seriously better and at family gatherings, the comments I get are: “taste just like Oma’s” and then I know that I’ve made it and that is the highest possible praise I could get. This year was a bit different – with the loss of my last grandparent, it seemed like now was the time to really explore my skills and find a way to provide the same baking that they did. In addition to my Christmas tradition of baking buns, I added peppermint cookies. It was my first year trying them, as they require special ingredients (baking ammonia) and a rather large amount of time.
In the Mennonite world, there are a few recipes for Peppermint cookies (Pfefferminzkuchen in German) circulating. They are virtually the same, with minor differences. Some are in established cookbooks, some are word of mouth, and some of them are hand written. My mom gave me her Oma’s (my Great-Oma’s) recipe to try, which was hand written in German. I’m lucky enough to be fluent in German, so translation was no problem. The problem came when under the instruction part, the only directive I had was “Bake at 375F until light golden brown”. I had to do equal parts research and improvisation.
Now, before we get to the actual recipe and instruction part, there are a couple of things you NEED to know before starting:
- Baking ammonia STINKS. Beware of the smell before AND during baking. It can also irritate the eyes. If possible, open a window while baking. After cookies are done baking, the house will smell of peppermint. A couple of notes just about baking ammonia in general: it is a leavener, so the cookies will spread in the oven. I think even more than your typical baking soda and powder. When storing it, I learned from my aunt over the holidays, that it should be stored in the freezer. It will evaporate if left at room temperature. To test whether or not it’s still good, put in water. If it fizzles, then it’s good to go. If not, go buy fresh! (In Winnipeg, you can buy it at Scoop ‘n Weigh on Taylor Ave.).
- You also need to be aware of the yield: I got about 150 cookies from this recipe. If you aren’t prepared for this volume, wait until you are! My cousins also made some this year and they got 12 dozen cookies. It also helps if you have various people who you can give them away to. In my family, my brother and dad will scarf them down in a moment’s notice. My bf is a recent convert to the peppermint cookie, and I enjoy them every once in a while as well. After baking them this year, I fully understood why my Oma would hand them out in 4L ice cream pails.
- I would also like to forewarn anyone who will try this for the first time that it may not work out. After hearing what my aunt had to say, she was happy that my first experience with baking ammonia turned out okay. It may not and that is also okay. If you love baking like I do, you’ll do your best to take it in stride and try it again when you feel like you can.
Now that I’ve given what I think you’ll need, here’s the recipe for:
1 cup butter or margarine, at room temperature
3 cups sugar
2 cups whipping cream
3 tbsp baking ammonia, dissolved in 1/4 cup boiling water
3 tsp peppermint extract
5 tsp baking powder
8 1/2 cups flour
Before beginning, put a kettle of water on to boil. Preheat oven to 375F.
In a large mixing bowl (you WILL need a large mixing bowl), cream the butter and the sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each egg.
In between egg additions, take a moment to measure the boiling water, and add your ammonia. It will fizzle like wildfire in the measure cup. Don’t be scared (like me) – it’s all good. It’ll simmer down in mere moments.
The butter-sugar-egg mixture should be semi-thick, smooth, and uniform. Add the cream and the ammonia-water mixture. Here you need to beware of the smell (fumes) and lean your head back so you don’t inhale it too much. Once you’ve mixed all that together, it’s time to add the flour. I would say, add the flour in 2-3 additions and continue to mix until virtually all the flour is incorporated. You can always take a spatula to it after to get the last little bits.
Rest and refrigerate the dough for at least 2-3 hours. I put mine outside in the snow for 2 hours and was grateful I did. The cold will help dry out the dough and make it less sticky when rolling. You can rest it overnight, if you wish, but you don’t need to.
When it comes time to roll and shape the dough, have PLENTY of flour on hand. Choose a plain round cutter no more than 1 1/2″ in diameter. The cookies will spread and rise in the oven, making them bigger than you anticipated. Cut the dough in quarters and work with a quarter at a time. Roll to 1/4″-1/3″ thick. Shape and place on prepared cookie sheets quickly.
Bake in your preheated 375F oven for about 8-10 minutes. It all depends on the cookie sheets – dark aluminum pans will bake faster (only about 7-8 minutes), where light aluminum pans will take a couple minutes longer (closer to the 10 minute mark). Keep a close eye on these – 30 seconds too long and they’ll be dark on the bottom. Not that this is bad, but you really want a very light finish on them to keep them as soft as possible.
After the cookies have cooled, you can ice them if you want, with a simple mix of milk and icing sugar. You don’t have to – you can enjoy them just as they are. My Oma almost never iced them, but my cousins’ Oma always did. After this, share and enjoy – there’s nothing more rewarding – food is meant to share, after all.
If I could offer one piece of wisdom after this, it would be the following: do it with someone. It gives you someone to share the adventure with, and that is priceless. After hearing how it went with my cousins, it made me sad that I didn’t get to have the same experience. I think we tend to underestimate the “together” part of cooking or baking, but thinking about it now makes me even more grateful that I am able to cook and bake with my mom and a few of my friends, and it makes me wish that I could do that with others as well, hoping they get the enjoyment and appreciation out of it as well.
Thanks for reading! Happy eats!