A cookie press is one of those kitchen tools that I forget exists until the holiday season rolls around each year. I don’t own one — I probably haven’t even touched one since I was a kid when, during the lead-up to Christmas, my mom would extract hers from the inconvenient depths of a cupboard — but few things evoke holiday nostalgia for me quite like spritz cookies.
The magic, I think, was in the selection of the metal extrusion discs. Scattering them around the countertop for careful consideration of which shapes to use felt like an important step, though I always liked the tree the best. It was the most fun to nibble on, munching row by row (branch by branch?), a dusting of crystalline green sprinkles adding hints of crunch to the soft, creamy texture of the cookie.
We used a cream cheese recipe for our spritz cookies. Childhood-me, whose favorite book to page through in our Oregon home was the 1988 edition of the “Kraft Philadelphia Cream Cheese Cookbook” — the silver-jacketed one with a big cherry cheesecake on the cover — was delighted.
Today, 37-year-old-me lives in Germany and was bummed when Bavaria’s Christmas markets were canceled for the second year in a row. In an attempt to bolster my holiday spirits, I purchased a copy of “Advent: Festive German Bakes to Celebrate the Coming of Christmas.” It’s an ethereally beautiful book — one that made me want to book a trip to Germany even though I already live here — and seeing a section on spritzgebäck (squirt cookies; the German language is nothing if not literal) delivered the warm, fuzzy feelings I’d hoped to evoke with my perusing.
Author Anja Dunk, Welsh-born to a German mother, writes that spritz cookies “are one of the more classic Advent biscuits, and are usually made in big batches.” This tracks with my memories, at least in terms of quantity. My childhood home was neither German nor did we celebrate Advent, and cream cheese is not especially prevalent in German baking culture.
“I don’t believe there is only one type of spritzgebäck,” Dunk told me when I reached out to ask her thoughts on what makes a “real” spritz cookie. “I think the beauty lies in the very fact that they can be done in myriad different ways.”
From using ground almonds (Dunk’s preference) to marzipan, cream cheese to corn flour, anything goes as long as the dough can make its way through the press — a tool that also varies.
“The main difference between how spritz cookies are made in the United States and Germany is that in Germany, you primarily use a fleischwolf (a mincer) with a cookie attachment on the front. In the States, it’s more common to use a cookie press,” Dunk explained.
While my mom confesses to having no idea what happened to the cookie press I remember from my youth, she has since replaced it with a new press (not a mincer). I’m pleased to see that her choice includes an array of discs, including the tree shape that is popular beyond my own (excellent) taste.
Amber Lough, a fellow American who also lives in Germany, told me that her favorites, too, are the trees. “I remember the honor bestowed upon those of us allowed to choose the next shape,” she said, and explained how her mom would color the dough green and sprinkle the cookies with green sugar crystals.
A self-described Navy brat, Lough’s family moved frequently, but the cookie press was always in tow. “We would make plates of spritz cookies (alongside ginger cookies we iced and decorated) and take them to our neighbors. In Japan, they were a huge hit,” she said.
Poking around in the memories of others quickly revealed that these little bakes aren’t nearly as old-school as I thought. In the sense of tradition, yes, but certainly not in terms of being an outdated relic.
Or so it seemed until I asked my Swedish husband, Johan, about his spritz cookie recollections.
“I have no idea what those would even be,” he said.
This was not the response I was expecting. There’s a widely held belief that spritz cookies either originated in or were popularized in Scandinavia. Sometimes they’re even referred to as Swedish butter cookies or Swedish spritz cookies, though the internet at large can’t seem to agree on their roots. Articles, blog posts and recipe headers alike often settle for a description of shared credit, like this Southern Living piece wherein spritz cookies are explained as “originating in Germany and Scandinavia in the 16th century.”
Questioning that claim, I turned to a more reliable Swedish source: my mother-in-law, Ulrika.
“Has a cookie press like this ever been a thing in Swedish baking?” I asked her over text message, cutting right to the chase with a photo of a vintage press.
“Absolutely! My grandma had exactly that one!” she confirmed. Minutes later, Ulrika sent a photo of spritsa kakor (yes, that’s “spritz cookies” in Swedish) as shown in a well-loved 1952 copy of “Sju Sorters Kakor,” an iconic book in Sweden that translates to “seven types of cookies,” dating from a time when it was customary to offer guests exactly seven varieties of small cookies.
Though my husband’s lack of awareness of spritz cookies is a conversation I’ll need to take up with his mother at another time, this information was validating. Still, I had one more baking expert I wanted to consult before throwing my hands up and accepting the origins as undefined.
“I’m not sure if spritz cookies originated in Germany or Scandinavia,” said Luisa Weiss, Berlin-based author of the much-beloved “Classic German Baking.” “The fact that they’re called spritzgebäck here and spritz cookies in the U.S. would imply that they originated in Germany, but I can’t be entirely sure.”
Weiss posits that spritz cookies may have originated in Scandinavia and migrated south, noting that even Italians have a form of spritz cookies in their own baking traditions.
“Some call them sandgebäck because of the sandy, melting texture the cookies have,” she added after explaining that spritzgebäck is a less-formal description of what is professionally known as dressiergebäck, or “dressing biscuits.”
It’s here that I could thicken the plot and mention sandbakkels, a sandy-textured Norwegian cookie pressed by hand into tiny tins. And surely I’d be remiss not to include mention of Royal Dansk butter cookies, reliably layered year after year in their unmistakable blue tins.
With mixed origins and so many naming conventions, it’s no wonder that the spritz cookies we know and love in the United States left a hazy westward trail. We do know that more than 2 million Scandinavians — those from Norway, Sweden or Denmark — immigrated to the U.S. between 1820 and 1920. The number of German immigrants over the same time period is about 7 million. Undoubtedly, the culinary traditions of each culture followed.
“My mom’s family came from Germany during the mid-to-late 1800s, and she grew up in a predominately German neighborhood in Milwaukee,” said Jenny Drai, who resides in Germany but grew up in Illinois and fondly remembers the cookie press. “I also very clearly remember that [my mom] made two shapes, wreaths and candy canes, then sprinkled them with green and red sprinkles.”
Drai assumes the spritz cookies were a family tradition, and told me that the flavor — which she suspects is almond extract — is a big part of the nostalgia for her.
Whether it’s the shape, taste or the press itself, it’s clear that spritz cookies are an enduring favorite. I’m even considering the purchase of a press of my own to return to the tradition, though I’ll probably share the yield with friends lest I consume a forest of spritz trees.
And I doubt they’ll complain.
“Spritzgebäck seem to be a universally loved cookie,” Dunk said. “No matter where you’re from or how old you are, everyone appears to love them.”
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