Review: German Cookie Baking and Decorating at Gewürzhaus

And auf Deutsch, too. *And* I could mostly understand it!

Let’s just start by saying that this was a whole world of fun, and that if you speak some German and like spiced cookies and mulled wine, you should definitely plan to attend the course when it comes back in November or December this year.  And if you like spiced cookies but don’t speak any German, give the English language version a try, because the cookies are delicious and Ina is lovely.  Also, you should just go to Gewürzhaus, course or no course, because their spices are *amazing*.

Having said that, though, I do recommend the German conversation course if you’ve ever studied German, even if your German is patchy and out of practice, because I think you’ll be surprised by how much you can understand and follow.  I’ve hardly spoken German since high school twenty years ago, and was never remotely fluent, and I understood enough to have a ball.  True, I was uncharacteristically quiet, it being easier to listen than to form a useful sentence which had actual German words in it (my grammar, oddly, has stayed – my vocabulary, not so much), but I did manage to ask questions about the things I wanted to know, and even understand the answers.  Ina was very good about stopping periodically to make sure people could understand her, and I’d say that while half the class had German as a first language, the rest of us were definitely out of practice German speakers, there to brush up on some language skills while eating cookies.

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For me, it was very much like the all-too-brief times I’ve spent in Germany (less than two weeks in total, ever, sigh!), where I’ll understand a fair bit, and then every so often I’ll find the conversation washing over me and past me, but eventually comprehension will return.  I don’t think I missed much, and I suspect the class would have had fewer interactions between students if the native speakers hadn’t been periodically assisting the rest of us with vocabulary.  Or at least, that was how things were functioning in my corner.

But I imagine you really want to hear about the cookies, so let’s talk about those.

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German Cookie Baking and Decorating is a 2.5 hour course held at the most dangerous spice shop in Melbourne (for which you get a 10% discount on the day of the course, a truly perilous thing to give someone like me who has been starved of new pantry items for a month.  We’ll get on to my epic over-reaction to this later…).   I would call it semi-hands on; Ina Low, who I think is one of the founders of Gewürzhaus, but I did mention my German wasn’t too good so I may have been confused during that part, and who is definitely from Köln, made all the cookie doughs, explaining them to us as she went, but we did all the shaping and decorating of cookies under her direction.

The class started with Glühwein (mulled wine), which may sound like a dreadful idea at 9:30 in the morning, but was actually very appealing given the very cold, rainy weather.  Gewürzhaus sells a rather gorgeous mulled wine spice mix and little infusion bags to use with it, and the spice mix comes with a recipe for making it up properly (all the Gewürzhaus spices and salts and sugars come either with a recipe or suggestions for their use), but Ina had a few improvements to make to it.   It was a pretty good start to the day, and probably bolstered everyone’s courage about speaking German!

Then Ina made, in quick succession, the Lebkuchen dough, the Vanillekipferl dough and the Spekulatius dough.  We had recipes to follow along in and make notes in – Ina likes to make her Vanillekipferl with ground pistachios rather than almonds, affecting the wetness of the dough – but this part was mostly watching and listening and sipping mulled wine.  Oh, and nibbling a few pre-made biscuits of these three types.

It’s a hard life.

The biscuits were interesting.  I’ve never really liked Lebkuchen, which is a spiced honey biscuit and fairly soft, but these were pretty good.  I thought I didn’t like Spekulatius, but Ina’s version is very crisp and almost toffee flavoured.  And Vanillekipferl are basically shortbread infused with ground pistachios and vanilla.  Always a win.

All of these biscuits, Ina explained, are made around Christmas time, and all of them keep very, very well.  The dough also keeps well in the fridge – and in fact, since the dough needs to be well chilled, we were using dough from a previous class to shape our cookies, while the dough from this class went into the fridge.

The first biscuits we shaped were the vanillekipferl, traditionally shaped like a crescent moon, because they were invented in honour of the bakers who foiled the Ottoman invasion of – I think – Vienna.  (And this is where I have to laugh, because I understood this story exactly backwards.  I thought the bakers were celebrating because they were happy about the Turkish invasion – which I did think was rather odd, but maybe the Turks were excellent customers?  It’s amazing what missing just one or two words will do for you.)  The crescents obviously symbolise the crescents on the Turkish flag, and I’m fairly sure I *did* understand correctly when Ina told us that French croissants have a similar inspiration.

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We were taught a couple of different ways to shape them, and were informed of the importance of under- rather than over-baking biscuits (particularly important when you have twelve rather individual notions of how big biscuits should be and they are all going onto the same trays!), and we drank Glühwein and nibbled wisely on dough scraps.

The lebkuchen were next.  It’s rather a fascinating dough, I found.  When it hasn’t yet been refrigerated, it feels a little sticky, but actually seems to get less sticky as you roll it out.  I’ve never encountered a dough which does that before.  The refrigerated dough was soft and not sticky, but had that sort of wonderful playdough consistency that you could do just about anything with.  We happily cut out hearts and stars and penguins and rhinocerouses, and many other shapes, while our instructor cut out giant hearts for us to decorate later.

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The third dough was the spekulatius, and it was my nemesis.  It’s quite a crumbly, yet sticky, dough, which one must roll out quite thinly to make it crisp, and the idea is that one molds it rather than cutting it into pretty shapes – Ina showed us some rather lovely silicon molds, flat, with drawings carved into them to emboss the biscuits.  Very traditional, or they would be if they were made from wood!  One can also do wonders with stamps or the bottom of a vase or glass.  I actually have a wooden mold at home, sent to me last year by my German penfriend, Anna, so I asked and received instruction on how to use this without going mad.  Though madness is probably in my future, because this dough is a pig to work with!  Naturally, it would have to be my favourite of the three biscuits!

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While we struggled with the dough, Ina whipped up some quark fritters that are traditional at Karneval, being full of eggs and dairy and fried in oil.  They are also rolled in cinnamon sugar and taste rather like an evil hot cheesecake.  Delicious.

And then we were given the big lebkuchen hearts to decorate, while Ina and her helper baked the last of the biscuits for us.  Traditionally, one decorates them with dots and lines and writing.  It was clear to me that only one phrase was appropriate for this occasion:

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Then we packed up our boxes, and went out to the spice shop to play (incidentally, my one complaint about this course was the lack of packaging for the giant hearts, which were a bit of a pest to carry around, though the spice shop ladies were happy for us to leave our loot behind the counter while we explored).  I actually have most of the spices we used already, but that only meant I had other things to try.  I started by re-stocking three of my favourites: lavender salt, vanilla bean sugar and chipotle pepper.

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I’m totally addicted to their lavender salt and use it in anything and everything, but it’s particularly amazing in roast potatoes.  And as for their vanilla sugar – it’s the most vanilla-ish example of its type that I’ve encountered.  I’ve taken to storing plain caster sugar in the vanilla sugar jar when I run out, because enough flavour lingers to infuse it with a hint of vanilla.  Gewürzhaus vanilla sugar doesn’t so much hint as shout.

Next, I was seduced by the cocoa and ginger sugar, and by a rather glorious mixture of coconut sugar with shredded coconut. It’s amazing – sort of toffee-ish, and only lightly coconutty in flavour.  I don’t quite yet know what I will do with it, but it will not be lingering in my pantry unused!  I rather suspect it would be glorious in oaty cookies, like my choc chip ones.

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I’m out of saffron, but wasn’t going to buy any today – Gewürzhaus saffron is gorgeous but a little pricey – but then I got seduced by the entire Moroccan section of the store.  With winter upon us, using my slow cooker for tagines is just about irresistible.  I was particularly taken with the Moroccan Souk spice mix and the Ras el Hanout, and when I realised I could get them in a pack with Harissa, Za’atar, Dukkah and saffron, there really was no choice…

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Yum. Tagine is definitely on the menu tomorrow.

I would absolutely recommend this course to anyone with an interest in baking or German.  I’m actually planning to attend the pretzel class later this year even though I don’t much like pretzels, just because it was so much fun making traditional cookies and listening to German conversation.  I gather that ours was the first German-speaking course they’ve done, and something of an experiment – but a successful one, as they were fully booked well in advance.  I hope they will bring many more to their class list, because this was worth getting up at 7:30 on a Saturday morning for, and that, for me, is really saying something.

(NB – the course actually started at 9:30, it’s just on the other side of town from me)

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3 responses to “Review: German Cookie Baking and Decorating at Gewürzhaus

  1. Sounds like a fun day. 🙂

  2. oh I love gewurzhaus – I am addicted to the lavender salt too (I think I was intrigued by your talk of it and had to buy some) but have run out and miss it greatly. I learnt german but am shocking at conversation so I suspect I would have no idea what was being said unless someone said wo ist der banhof which is useless in a cooking class (but was useful in germany). The biscuits all sound wonderful – I have made lebkuchen once and loved it – and I imagine with all the wonderful gewurzhaus spices that everything would taste amazing

    • The lavender salt is amazing, isn’t it?

      I’m pretty shocking at German conversation, and really don’t know many cooking-related words, either, but it was fairly easy to follow, because all her containers of ingredients were labelled in German, and of course she was *doing* what she was talking about, so one could figure it out. I suspect you’d do better than you think. And yes, it all tasted amazing!

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