It is said that smell is the most primeval of the senses. Considering the earliest single-celled organisms likely needed to react to the changes in their immediate chemical environment long before needing to sense light or sound, this makes sense. Smell, or the precursor of the sense, very likely helped the first life to survive.
Today images tend to overwhelm our senses given how keen our sight has evolved to be. Ours is primarily a visual experience and our memories are largely filled with pictures. The sense of smell has been relegated to a much more passive, but no less powerful role. Think of some of your fondest memories and I am sure that there is a smell related to them. Autumn leaves, the vinyl seats of your first car, the first strawberries of the season, someone’s perfume. Smell is still the most evocative of the senses. Smell doesn’t just make your reminisce like looking at an old photograph. It is visceral and can pull you back across decades of time.
For those who celebrate Christmas, it almost always has associated smells. Baking pies, pine needles, or the spices of eggnog. For me, childhood Christmas smells like licorice.
Springerles are a Christmas tradition in my family. My grandmother would bake dozens upon dozens of the tender, airy, pillow-like cookies redolent with anise. The whole house would smell of licorice and that smell meant Christmas.
Springerles originated in southern Germany, likely Swabia, going back to at least the fourteenth century. The dough is embossed with designs and motifs, today usually Christmas themes, and then dried overnight so that the detail remains on the cookies when they are baked. Though now considered a bit old-fashioned, they are still a staple of the Christmas season. Whenever I walk through any Christmas market, passing stands selling spices and catch a whiff of anise, I am immediately transported back to grandma’s kitchen.
The true irony is that while I loved the smell as a kid, I couldn’t stand the cookies themselves. It was only well into adulthood when I started to like licorice. Now I love it in any form, enjoying a pastis in the summer and having an absolute weakness for Scandinavian salty licorice. And while I enjoy these treats today, Grandma’s springerles are a thing of the past.
But then Elise and I were unpacking our annual Christas package from my parents. Stuffed in between the seemingly endless bags of cookies from my mom and the granola and walnuts from my dad was a small item packaged securely in bubble wrap. Unwrapping it, I staggered back a step in surprise. It was a springerle mold that my brother carved for us.
Many cookie recipes are beloved family secrets. However when it comes to springerles, the molds are fiercely-guarded and prized artifacts often going back generations. A good mold is a work of art and while you can purchase them today, I never felt a need to do so. Though it has nothing to do with taste, a purchased mold wouldn’t have been the same.
My brother has been working with wood for years, and we have many beautifully carved spoons and other items from him. I think he is in unspoken competition with my dad who works with driftwood (which also decorates our home). However I didn’t know he had started etching. The mold was cut into walnut with mostly Christmas motifs with the addition of two weiner-dog profiles: Heidi and Gusti.
After getting Grandma’s recipe from mom, I found myself in the kitchen more excited than I have ever been to try a recipe. Already as I toasted the anise seeds in the skillet I could smell Christmas. Crushing it in the mortar released not only the full aroma, but the memories of decades past. As I pressed the mold onto the turned-out dough, the shapes of holly, snowflakes, and wiener-dogs began to cover all the open space in the kitchen to dry overnight.
Nervous and excited, I baked the first batch the next morning. I was delighted not only by the nostalgia wafting through the house from the oven but also to see that they developed the typical “foot” as proper Springerles should. Springerle is German for “little jumper” and folk etymology attributes this to how they raise (or jump up) when baking and form an offset due to the base rising away from the dried out top to form the foot.
Coming out of the oven, they looked good. They looked like springerles. Biting into one, I was overwhelmed with the sweet/powerful aroma of anise and also thrown back in time into Grandma’s kitchen. Not only could I smell the anise, but I could almost smell the cedar Christmas tree, the smoke of the wood stove, and the ever-present pot of coffee. Were the cookies good? Unbelievable. Was my opinion biased by uncontrollable and emotional nostalgia? You’re damn right it was.
Even without springerles, Christmas is usually bit nostalgic for me. It is a time for cooking old recipes and remembering getting together with the family. Being able to make my own springerles made this year particularly special. So my thanks to my brother for one of the best Christmas gifts I have ever received, to my mother for keeping grandma’s recipe alive over the years, and of course to Grandma for making such wonderful memories for me to cherish all these years later.