For today’s special Christmas Day programme Pavla Horáková has invited three young ladies from Prague to her own kitchen to discuss the tradition of Czech Christmas cookies and also to make and taste the popular kind known as “Beehives” or “Wasps’ Nests”.
Barbora: I would say vanilla, that’s what first comes to mind. And of course, mulled wine with cinnamon from the Christmas markets.
Lucie: Also that special kind of incense that you burn – frankincense.
Pavla: You mentioned vanilla and cinnamon – very important spices for Czech traditional Christmas cookies. Do you all bake and did you learn that from your mothers?
Bianca: I didn’t. I only started when I had my own children. I only then got some old recipes from an old sweet shop. I don’t actually use my mother’s or grandmother’s recipes.
Barbora: It’s quite the opposite for me. I use my mother’s or grandmother’s recipes and I very rarely introduce anything new into them. I don’t like any innovations or twists. I’m quite conservative.
Lucie: My mother was very conservative so we weren’t that kind of family that had twenty different kinds of cookies at Christmas. We only had like the three or four that everybody liked.
Barbora: This is going to sound a bit smug but actually I don’t like other people’s Christmas cookies.
Lucie: I don’t think anyone does. I think people only like their own family recipes.
Bianca: I love other people’s.
Pavla: How many varieties do you make?
Lucie: I usually make about three.
Bianca: I make less and less every year.
Pavla: Do you think that there is competitiveness among Czech women as to how many varieties they make?
Lucie: Oh, definitely.
Bianca: Absolutely, yes.
Barbora: Especially among the older generation.
Lucie: I don’t think so, really. Check all the social media. Young women everywhere are boasting over each other, lording over the others – I have eighteen, what about you?
Bianca: It doesn’t end there. Children always have parties at schools and nurseries and you are sort of obliged to bring some in from your mother’s cooking. So your cookies are exposed there next to other mothers’ cookies which are usually prettier and tastier.
Lucie: All those other mothers, they have this very neat box and the cookies are all lined up in rows, different kinds in rows like soldiers. And you bring your three measly kinds…
Barbora: But actually my cookies are usually not finished at the time of these parties, so I usually don’t take part in the competition.
Pavla: We’ve been talking about cookies but we haven’t explained what they are – what they are made of, what they taste like… Can they be compared to something our listeners might be familiar with?
Lucie: I think the term “cookies” is kind of misleading for English speaking audiences because they are not really cookies or even biscuits. I’m not sure what I would compare them to.
Pavla: What is the usual size?
Lucie: Very tiny. Bite-sized.
Pavla: They are sweet, obviously.
Barbora: That’s the main ingredient – sugar.
Bianca: Sugar, butter, nuts.
Barbora: They have different shapes, usually evocative of Christmas.
Lucie: Yes, the cookie cutters are a special part of every family heritage. You have all those cookie cutters, different sizes, different shapes passed down from generation to generation.
Pavla: That was the case in my family, definitely. But ours were quite big and I was always ashamed of my Christmas cookies when I brought them to school because other kids had tinier.
Bianca: Yes, mine are always the biggest.
Barbora: One year my mum said that as my father always eats the vanilla rolls by handfuls, this time she would make bigger vanilla rolls so he doesn’t eat three at a time. He had a special tray made only for him but he still ate the tiny ones because he said they simply tasted better. So they have to be tiny.
Pavla: Can we describe vanilla rolls to our listeners? Obviously, vanilla is an important ingredient…
Lucie: There’s butter, there’s sugar as in everything…
Bianca: Shredded almonds…
Barbora: Flour… and basically they are small crescents and once they are made, you put some confectioner’s sugar with vanilla sugar on them…
Pavla: While they are still hot from the oven.
Lucie: And it’s very, very hard to get them right. I mean, mine fall apart most of the time.
Barbora: You have to choose the right time for starting to roll them in the sugar.
Lucie: They either swell to unimaginable proportions in the oven or they fall apart as soon as I take them out.
Pavla: And they also burn very quickly.
Barbora: But then at least the children can taste them. They are always waiting for the ones that will fall apart or burn so they can try them.
Pavla: The ugly ones get eaten first and the pretty ones have to wait until the very time of Christmas.
Lucie: Or they are the ones that get handed out in the competitions. So you never get to taste the nice, well-done ones, you know.
Pavla: Bianca, you mentioned ground almonds – but my family actually always made them with hazelnuts.
Barbora: We make them with walnuts.
Lucie: I think we do use hazelnuts, too.
Pavla: Do you think that baking cookies is a women’s job?
Lucie: Women and children’s job.
Barbora: Same in our family. Only my brother tends to help us because he doesn’t have a family yet.
Bianca: I’ve never heard of a man making cookies.
Barbora: So I suppose we are lucky then.
Lucie: But it’s really something mothers do with the kids. And for the kids it’s part of the Christmas atmosphere that they get to help. Actually for that purpose I kind of adopted a new recipe that we never made before – those little gingerbread cookies that you decorate with icing. They’re very easy to make for children. The dough is easy to make, it’s easy to make the forms and it’s easy to decorate with the icing. So that’s what we do first. The first round is always the gingerbread cookies because they are so easy to make and kids have a lot of fun.
Lucie: Well, you had to stock up well in advance for a lot of things. You had to think about Christmas for like months before, right?
Bianca: It was probably more difficult when you couldn’t buy shredded walnuts, you had to do it yourself.
Barbora: We had a tree in our garden so we had our own walnuts. Of course, we didn’t have real vanilla.
Lucie: Yes, that’s right. Things like real vanilla, were they even around?
Pavla: I don’t think they were available so we used “vanilla sugar” with some artificial flavouring.
Barbora: I have to confess that I still use it today because it’s simply the traditional recipe that we’ve always used. And the same goes actually for white sugar that I normally don’t use anymore but you can’t put some Demerara or Muscovado sugar into Czech traditional Christmas cookies.
Pavla: No, it wouldn’t work… Do you use real butter – or shortening?
Lucie: Butter, of course!
Barbora: Of course!
Lucie: There are other recipes, I mean non-Christmas recipes that I usually use shortening for because obviously that’s what my mother used, but not for Christmas cookies.
Pavla: We are going to make one special variety of Czech Christmas cookies right here, right now. It’s according to Lucie’s recipe. Can you tell us more about it?
Lucie: Well, it’s kind of a misleading term because these cookies are actually not baked. What I find interesting is that people never agree on the name for them. Because some people call them Wasps’ Nests and some people call them Beehives, which I find very interesting because they’re clearly beehives, they look nothing like wasps’ nests. There’s nothing waspy about them whatsoever. What do you call them?
Bianca: Yes, we too. Barbora: We mostly call them Wasps’ Nests as well but they are certainly beehive-shaped.
Pavla: I thought maybe because there’s alcohol in them, the sting of alcohol can evoke wasps, but then again, bees have stings as well.
Barbora: I use eggnog and rum.
Lucie: So do I. Eggnog and rum. Well, if we say rum, we should maybe say it’s not the rum that everybody else knows all around the world. Czech rum is made from potatoes.
Barbora: It’s certainly not sugarcane.
Pavla: It’s brown, it has a typical flavour.
Bianca: Very aromatic.
Pavla: So Czech rum is one important ingredient of Wasps’ Nests/Beehives. What else?
Lucie: Well, there’s butter, of course, sugar, there’s hazelnuts…
Pavla: Really? There are no hazelnuts in my family’s recipe.
Lucie: There you go. I do use hazelnuts, cocoa as well.
Barbora: I use cocoa as well, but no hazelnuts.
Lucie: Some people don’t use cocoa because they don’t want them brown. I like them brown, so I use the cocoa. Then there’s a little bit of milk and then there’s butter for the filling and eggnog, sugar.
Barbora: I also use yolks for the filling.
Lucie: I don’t use yolks, no.
Pavla: The eggnog is enough. And also sponge biscuits?
Lucie: Yes, ground sponge biscuits are used in the dough and the beehive is capped off with the sponge biscuit.
Lucie: So we have the round sponge biscuits, we have butter, we have a dash of milk, we have powder sugar, two teaspoons or tablespoons – depends on how brown you want them – of cocoa, we have ground hazelnuts, we have rum. And that’s for the outer dough. And then you have the filling which has butter, powder sugar, eggnog and rum.
Pavla: I can see Barbora shaking her head…
Barbora: I am trying to compare the ingredients with my recipe. So it would be minus the hazelnuts and plus the egg yolks for the filling. Otherwise the ingredients are more or less the same.
Pavla: How is the dough made?
Lucie: I usually use a mixer. I don’t know how you make it but I usually just put it in the machine.
Bianca: I use my hands to play with the dough.
Lucie: I hate that. I hate having dough beneath my fingernails!
Barbora: I think powdered sugar is even worse.
Lucie: So I usually put it in the blender.
Pavla: And then, do you leave it in the fridge for a while?
Lucie: Yes. It’s supposed to sit for at least an hour.
Pavla: And while it sits, you make the filling…
Lucie: Yes, but the filling takes a very short time.
Pavla: OK, and what happens next when both the dough and filling are ready?
Lucie: Then you take these little moulds that look like beehives.
Pavla: They indeed do look like beehives.
Lucie: And then you put the outer dough inside the mould.
Bianca: Press it hard.
Lucie: Yes, press it hard. And then some people use a ladle, the other side of the ladle, I use my finger, my pinkie finger usually, to make a hole in the dough. And then you put the filling in and you just cap it off with the sponge biscuit, which is small and round and fits perfectly at the bottom of the beehive. And then you just knock it out. Also you’re supposed to put powdered sugar or something inside the mould first so that the dough doesn’t stick to the sides.
Pavla: I remember when my mother and I made them that very often they wouldn’t come out. It was quite dramatic. Do you have that experience as well?
Bianca: Yes, absolutely.
Lucie: About half of them never come out! That’s part of the experience.
Barbora: But then you have some modern moulds that are easier to open and that makes things a bit easier.
Lucie: But they don’t work! They tear them apart.
Barbora: It’s true that sometimes they are torn apart but mostly it works. I use this kind.
Bianca: Obviously, you haven’t got the right recipe.
Pavla: Would you say that the Beehives are very popular?
Barbora: Definitely in our family. I even visited some friends in Finland during the holiday season and these were their favourite.
Lucie: They’re definitely the favourite in our family. We have to make literally hundreds of them because everyone wants them. We have like this little manufacture set up with my sister-in-law and my mother-in-law. We sit down and fill them. Because they’re very aromatic, they’re very, very tasty and they’re soft. In my experience a lot of the Christmas cookies are kind of hard. A lot of people don’t like the hard kinds but these are nice and soft and tasty. And the kids especially love them.
Barbora: With the eggnog and the rum in it!
Lucie: The hard part is what comes afterwards. Has anyone ever checked the caloric content of all those cookies? Or do we live in blissful oblivion? But obviously every family makes quite a lot of them and you do tend to eat a lot. They are small and bite-sized but they taste nice and you tend to take more and more. And then when Christmas is over, that’s when repentance comes.
Pavla: You don’t want to step on the scales after Christmas. And also – it’s not a very nice thing to say – but would you say that a lot of these cookies get thrown out come February?
Barbora: Not in our family.
Lucie: It’s the eternal cycle, you know. You make those cookies about two weeks before Christmas and then you hide them from everyone because you want to save them for the Christmas table. So you ban everyone from eating them and then when Christmas is over, you’re desperate because nobody is eating them anymore and there are all of these cookies left and your kids are not eating any of those cookies! Please, go ahead, take some! And that’s like the eternal cycle of Czech Christmas.
Barbora: We don’t have this problem.
Bianca: You have two types. The one that gets eaten before Christmas and the other one that you throw out in February.
Barbora: Once my mother-in-law offered to make some Christmas cookies for my birthday, but honestly, I can’t imagine eating Christmas cookies at a different period of the year.
Bianca: Out of context.
Barbora: It’s simply so connected with Christmas. It’s such a Christmas ritual that I wouldn’t even like my family’s Christmas cookies in July!
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