In Switzerland, Christmas cookies hold a special place in the hearts of the locals. Apart from cheese fondue, Christmas cookies may be another common denominator in Switzerland's culinary heritage.
Christmas cookies are more than just sweet treats; they reflect Swiss culture, traditions, and the joy of the holiday season. Each cookie has a unique flavor and texture, from chewy to hard as stone. And it is a testament to the culinary expertise passed down through generations.
By now, I have mastered many baking techniques and know where to get the ingredients. Making the delectable treats and watching them take shape in the oven has a certain magic. During this ritual, I get wrapped up in the smells of baking and the anticipation of that first bite...
In my ultimate baker's guide, find everything from traditional recipes to baking traditions passed down through generations.
The History of Baking Christmas Cookies
The tradition of baking Christmas cookies, known as Weihnachtsguetzli in Switzerland, is deeply rooted in history and has significantly impacted Swiss culture. The practice is believed to have originated in the Middle Ages, when monasteries would produce elaborate baked goods with exotic spices to distribute to the poor during Christmas and New Year.
Another theory suggests that the tradition dates back to antiquity, where dough shaped into animals was offered as a sacrifice to protect homes and livestock during the winter solstice.
Traditional Swiss Christmas Cookie Recipes
Switzerland has a sweet tooth for Christmas cookies, and it shows! Each of the countless Swiss Christmas cookies has a unique flavor and texture. From chewy to hard as stone, here are five typical Swiss cookies and recipes for you to try:
Mailänderli: The Golden Delight
These buttery golden cookies are a staple in Swiss households during Christmas. The dough, made from basic ingredients like butter, sugar, eggs, and flour, is cut into festive shapes such as stars, hearts, and Christmas trees. The result is a cookie with a delicate, crumbly texture and a rich, buttery flavor enhanced by a hint of lemon zest. Those with gluten sensitivities can substitute the flour with a gluten-free flour blend.
The name Mailänderli implies Milanese origins, as Mailand is German for Milan. The recipe first appeared in Switzerland in the 18th century as Gâteau de Milan. But there is no proof about the origin other than the fact that there is a similar shortcrust pastry in Milan. It contains candied fruits and almonds, however.
For a step-by-step guide on how to make Mailänderli cookies, check out our blog post below. Those who enjoy cookie-cutting but not baking can buy pre-made Mailänderli dough at Coop or Migros.
Spitzbuebe: A Sweet and Tangy Treat
Spitzbuebe cookies sandwich fruity jam between two shortbread layers, creating a sweet, tangy treat. One of the first recipes appeared in the 1929 cookbook Das Meisterwerk der Küche, so they are a rather new variety of Swiss Christmas cookie.
The Swiss-German name Spitzbuebe best translates to rascals. When you look closely at the three holes, you might notice the face of a rascal... Traditionally the top is decorated with powdered sugar or glaze and punctured with three round holes, sometimes arranged as a face. Spitzbuebe's whimsical name and endearing face have propelled these jam-filled shortbread cookies into a classic Swiss holiday treat.
Basler Brunsli: A Chocoholic's Dream
The Basler Brunsli cookie is a chocolate lover's dream. The name implies brown, which makes sense: these rich cookies feature ground almonds, sugar, egg whites and cocoa powder. Many families have their own recipes and there is a debate over the "right" ingredients: whether to make it with chocolate bars, cocoa powder, hazelnuts or walnuts. Either way, Brunsli have a rich chocolate taste balanced by crunchy nuts and a subtle hint of spice like cinnamon or cloves.
The Brunsli cookie is popular across Switzerland, but it has a strong tie to Basel. Dating back over 300 years, the first known Brunsli recipe was published in 1750 in Basel. Archives show they were served at weddings and other festive meals.
Brätzeli: Buttery and Crispy Wafers
These thin and crispy wafers are a specialty of the cantons of Bern and Fribourg. By using a special hot iron press, bakers imprint intricate patterns onto the Brätzeli dough batter. Some of the patterns show agricultural themesgeometric shapes or coat of arms. The result is a delicate, crisp and visually stunning wafer with a lemony flavor. My advice: dip it in coffee, adorne a bowl of ice-cream, or try a savory variety with cheese.
Zimtsterne: The Star of Swiss Christmas
Swiss cinnamon stars, or Zimtsterne, are a chewy, aromatic cookie with a distinct cinnamon punch. Hands down, they are a quintessential treat found in bakeries and home kitchens alike. Opinions differ on when it's appropriate to enjoy these spicy-sweet stars. Some adhere to tradition and wait until Christmas Eve. But my family digs in as soon as the delicious Zimtsterne come out of the oven...
This star-shaped holiday cookie has been traced back to the 16th century, when cinnamon was a precious spice imported to Europe. Early recipes appeared in German cookbooks in the 1700s, and Swiss recipes emerged in the late 1800s. Basler cookbooks from that era contain Zimtsterne among the typical Christmas cookies made in upper class households.
Anisbrötli Chräbeli: A Flavorful Delight
Anisbrötli cookies are a traditional Swiss Christmas treat flavored with anise seeds. In my family, we call them Chräbeli, which stems from claws and describes the shape of the cookie quite well.
These dried cookies contain ground almonds, sugar, egg whites, and anise seeds. The dough is shaped into small crescents and baked until golden brown. The result is a cookie with a unique texture that is hard yet crumbly and a distinct anise flavor that is sweet and slightly spicy. The Badener Chräbeli cookie has been a specialty of Baden for over 300 years, sold year-round since 1710. Bäckerei Frei in Nussbaumen makes some of the best.
Swiss Cookie Baking Traditions
Baking Swiss Christmas cookies is about more than just having a jar full of treats. It is also about the tradition of coming together during the Advent season. In Switzerland, cookie baking is often a family affair, with multiple generations coming together to create these sweet treats. Here are some of the typical baking traditions you would find in a Swiss household:
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Tips for Baking Swiss Christmas Cookies
Now it's time to roll up your sleeves and start baking! In Swiss-German, we call the tradition of baking Christmas cookies Guetzle. We usually start Guetzle in late November, in time for the first Advent. Here are some general tips to keep in mind when making Swiss Christmas cookies:
- Use only the best ingredients: Swiss Christmas cookies are all about simplicity and quality. Use the best ingredients, such as Swiss butter, fresh eggs, and high-quality chocolate. These ensure your cookies have a knock-out flavor and texture.
- Follow the recipe: Generations of homemakers, patisseurs, and regular folks have perfected Swiss Christmas cookie recipes. As not to overwhelm you, our recipes are easy to follow so that anyone can bake some traditional Swiss cookies. Follow the recipes closely, paying attention to measurements and instructions.
- Take your time: Trust me when I say that baking Swiss Christmas cookies is a labor of love. I always start bright and early. But by the 10th sheet, I often realize I am overdoing it... Keep in mind that you can prepare most cookie doughs ahead of time and store them in the fridge. Baking cookies can be therapeutic and relaxing, but don't do too much in one day.
- Get creative: While traditional Swiss Christmas cookies are charming, don't be afraid to add your own twist. Experiment with different flavors, shapes, and decorations to make the cookies uniquely yours.
Swiss Christmas cookies are more than just sweet treats; they reflect Swiss culture, traditions, and the joy of the holiday season. Come November, we always look forward to baking Mailänderli, Spitzbuebe, or many other Swiss Christmas cookies. Gather your loved ones, put on festive music, and fill your home with the aroma of freshly baked cookies!