Re-creating nostalgic cookies brings back family memories

A hand-chiseled rolling pin is used to make German Springerle, a decorative, anise-flavored cookie with a long history.

I found it while rummaging through a cabinet looking for a missing camera manual — the time-worn springerle rolling pin, inside a faded plastic bread bag. It mesmerized me like an old photo that turns up unexpectedly. Turning it over in my hands, I was once again the child filled with wonder. What do those carvings mean?

The antique rolling pin, chiseled with images, came into my possession unceremoniously. A few years ago, while we were paring down my mother's remaining belongings for the third or fourth time, I took it, mainly because nobody else did. There is no room for stuff in her life any longer, however cherished. If it won't fit in a closet, chest or bedside table, it has to go.

My mother, soon to be 93, lives in a nursing home. A stroke has left her at peace with the world, not frustrated and angry as she might be with her lot in life. "I'm in no pain," she says cheerfully every time we speak.

These days, her short-term recall is as fleeting as a shooting star. If you leave the room for very long, she'll forget that you were ever there. "Mom, you just have a little short-circuit in your brain," I tell her. She laughs, her sapphire-blue eyes twinkling. She is still a good sport.

But her memories of long-ago days can be as strong and luminous as a hunter's moon. Last fall, we were looking at a picture of her elementary school class. There were a dozen or so adolescent boys and girls. Without hesitation, she named every one by first and last name. She does know that the springerle rolling pin belonged to my grandmother, and she believes it was passed down from my great-grandmother. That easily would make it more than 100 years old.

My mother and her five siblings grew up on a 10-acre vegetable farm in Columbus, Ohio. Lately she is returning more and more to the two-story yellow house on Smith Road, unable to sort out the past from the present. The past is more fun, certainly. She always is shocked to learn her parents have been gone some 40 years.

The maternal side of my family is solid German stock, thus the springerle cookies at Christmas. The cookies were part of a box of holiday treats sent to us in Virginia each year from "Grandmom," who spoke only German until she went to school.

We kids thought those goodies were wonderful, exotic in a way, because they had spices, tastes and textures unlike any other cookies we knew. The anise flavor of the springerle made me a lifelong fan of licorice, I'm sure. Other cookies such as spekulatius and pfeffernusse connected our American palates to the old country.

My mother was a prolific and good Christmas cookie baker as well. At some point, she began making the springerles. And some years they gave her a fit.

Springerle can be bedeviling. One of the pitfalls is too-sticky dough. After meeting the surface of the rolling pin, the dough should be imprinted with the form of whatever has been carved into the wood. Ideally, the dough also should come away cleanly from the rolling pin. That doesn't always happen.

Each pass of the rolling pin on a fresh piece of dough should produce a sheet of "pictures" that are cut into individual cookies for baking. The end result should be a pale cookie with a decorative and slightly brittle surface that's somewhat softer below. The longer they're kept, the harder they become. Then they are better as a "dipping" cookie than out of hand.

Alas, they can acquire teeth-cracking properties, even when they're fairly fresh. Some people prefer them that way, but we didn't. When my mother's springerle was bricklike, we teased her by calling it "hard tack." Hard tack normally refers to a very hard sea biscuit and is not a complimentary expression.

So, as I held the rolling pin last week, it occurred to me that my turn had come. After all, it was the right time of year, and I had never made them. And a springerle rolling pin is not meant to lie dormant. The cookies are meant to communicate something about life.

The images on mine are bucolics. Among them are a chicken, duck and birds, a rabbit, a fish, corn and cherries. Some I can't figure out, including a crescent shape that could be a moon, but also resembles a shrimp — am I projecting? One square holds a heart.

I went about gathering the ingredients. One required a special trip to an old-fashioned drugstore, in this case, the Pitt Street Pharmacy in Mount Pleasant. I had to seek out anise oil, just as my mother had done. Extract won't do, she always said, and food stores typically don't carry the oil.

The woman behind the counter cocked her eyebrow as she started to ring up the 1-ounce bottle. "Do you think the price is right?" she asked, reading $12.10 on the label. She checked with the pharmacist. No mistake.

I began making the cookies one night after work. I don't know if I was tired or impatient, but things didn't seem to be going well. The mix was even stickier than expected. I worried that I was working in too much flour. Dough glued itself to the rolling pin, necessitating a quick wash and blow-dry.

I got two pans full before stopping. Then they needed to dry overnight before baking.

By the next morning the cookies looked flatter and shrunken. I was discouraged. In the oven, however, the old magic happened. They plumped out like pillows. They didn't turn into concrete. A bit raggedy-looking, but passable for the first try. The anise taste was maybe a little too intense.

Next year, Mom, I'll shoot for the moon.