In the Czech kitchen preparations for Christmas start early. While the traditional Christmas dish of fried carp and potato salad take just a few hours to make, the wide variety of tiny, ornate Christmas cookies that are eaten throughout the Christmas holidays take weeks of preparations.
Housewives usually start baking them as early as mid or late-November and devote many weekends and evenings to creating a huge assortment of delicious, tiny cookies that grace the Christmas table. Among the most popular are jam-filled Linzer cookies, vanilla crescents, chocolate bear paws, baskets with a delicious chocolate filling, beehives filled with eggnog butter cream, gingerbread cookies, coconut macaroons and walnut-shaped cookies filled with crushed walnuts in a delicious cream. The main ingredients are flour, butter, sugar, eggs, rum, almonds and raisins and the aim is to make them as tiny and moist as possible.
Each family has its own “tried and tested” recipes and while some are happy with having just four or five kinds of these mouth-watering cookies on the Christmas table, others make as many as 16 varieties. The reason why baking starts early is not just the painstaking process of making, shaping and baking hundreds of tiny creations, but the fact that some of them need time to soften up, stored in boxes in a cold place with a slice of apple to keep them moist.
The history of Czech Christmas cookies goes back to the 16th century –when the cookies looked very different from today’s elaborate creations. Back then the cookies were made from flour, eggs, sugar and candied fruit and our predecessors believed that the cookies would protect them from dark forces. That is why some of them were moulded in the shape of farm animals, some of the batter was smeared on fruit trees to ensure a good harvest and the cookies that were round shaped – symbolizing the sun – were hung inside and outside people’s homes. Some of the cookies were crushed and put in the feed for the farm animals.
Christmas cookies as we know them today only appeared in the homes of rich families in the 19th century. They were filled with various spices and often contained honey. Gradually, they got more and more elaborate, with the help of a wide variety of cookie-moulds and cutters and many different ingredients.
While today the tradition of baking Christmas cookies brings the family together and makes the holiday less commercialized, due to the hectic pace of life some people prefer to buy an assortment of Christmas cookies made by professionals. While in the communist era this was practically impossible, because of the poor quality of such goods, now there are bakeries that make cookies as good as home-made.
One such Prague bakery is called Vypečené Sestry or the “Smart Sisters Bakery” ( a play on the Czech word vypečené which means both well-baked and smart) and is run by two sisters who are really into cooking. Originally they had a restaurant but in time they turned the business into a highly professional bakery.
Zdenka Mašková says the inspiration to do so came from their clients, because people who came to their restaurant would praise their baked desserts and ask if they could bake for them. In the end they decided to specialize in that. Zdenka says she understands the need for this service.
“Women are so busy nowadays, they work, they take care of children so they don’t have time to bake fifteen kinds of Christmas cookies. What they do is bake one variety – for instance gingerbread cookies – with the kids just for the fun of it, to create the mood and involve their children, and then they buy the rest from us.”
The bakery takes orders until the end of November and then bakes for three weeks non-stop. Alena Ježková says they now offer a variety of Christmas cookies to choose from.
“We make tiny Christmas cookies –ever since we were small we loved the tiny ones best. They look so much better and we now make 12 different kinds. At first we started out making 20 but gradually we weeded some out, depending on what people praised less –and bought less off. The recipes are from our own aunts, grandmothers and great-grandmothers but also from Kvety, a woman’s magazine that we came upon 15 years ago – so they are all tried and tested.”
Like the home-made variety, their cookies are made to last – the large amount of butter used keeps them moist for weeks, although they need to be kept in the fridge. In Czech homes the cookies are often consumed until January and it often happens that even if housewives hide the boxes they are set upon and eaten in the run up to Christmas which means quickly baking another batch. Zdenka Mašková again:
“Our cookies last until January. Of course the cream ones need to be kept in the fridge, but then not many families have a problem with the expiry date. We start delivering on December 15th and some families beg us to store their Christmas cookies here for longer because if they take them home they will get eaten right away.”
Another Czech Christmas specialty is the vánočka – a Christmas sweetbread or plaited loaf with raisins and almonds. The “Smart Sisters Bakery” makes a huge amount of those as well, to deliver to Czech homes. The “smart” sisters guarantee top quality products, the only thing they do not take responsibility for it the amount of weight their clients will gain after consuming them. But as they say “Christmas is only once a year, so why not savour all it has to offer.”
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