Christmas Baking the Czech Way

Get out your rolling pins and cookie cutters, it’s not too late

This year I vowed that no one was going to catch me with an icing pen, decorating sugar cookies on the evening of December 23rd. I was going to follow the Czech example and get my Christmas sweets baked, wrapped and delivered by the third Advent weekend. I hoped to give a sampling of American sweets to my neighbors for a cross-cultural sugar exchange. I also wanted to expand my repertoire to include a few Czech recipes.

Czech women are known to labor long hours during the month of December preparing their family’s favorite Christmas sweets. With names like opilý Izidor (drunken Isador), pracny (bear paws) and vosí hnízda (beehives), Czech Christmas sweets are a colorful lot. Some are cookies, others are multi-layer miniature cakes or elaborate chocolate and cream pyramids. Common fillings include rum, egg liquor, chocolate, jam and nuts. I haven’t found a Czech sweet that’s got the same high sugar content as the sugar cookies, peanut butter balls or chocolate fudge that I grew up with. But, perhaps that’s a good thing.

There’s a bit of friendly competition surrounding the Christmas sweet preparation. When the topic of Christmas baking comes up, you’ll hear Czech women asking one another how many different druhy (types) of sweets they’ve prepared. I’ve always been intimidated by the Christmas baking talk, but it seems on the whole good-natured.

My English students who are mothers of school age and younger children claim they stick to preparing their family’s favorites, citing time constraints and also the preferences of their children. For Czech children, favorites often include perníčky (gingerbread), vanilkové rohlíčky (vanilla crescent rolls) and linecké sušenky (two-layer shortbread cookies filled with jam or chocolate). When it comes to knowing different varieties of Christmas sweets, Czech babičky (grandmothers) are the ones to ask, especially if you want a more elaborate list.

According to industry research published by Czech Information Agency (CIA) for Tesco stores, 56% of Czechs will spend at least 1500 CZK on buying the raw baking ingredients for Christmas sweets this year. Although 81 % of Czechs will spend up to 500 CZK buying readymade sweets, only 6% of Czechs will purchase all of their Christmas sweets. Ninety-one percent of Czechs will bake sweets at home, with 16% baking only their favorite varieties and receiving additional varieties as gifts from relatives or buying them. The Christmas baking statistics were released in early December and are based on information gathered from Tesco shoppers.

From what I’ve seen (and tasted), most Czech families welcome a blend of tradition and innovation in their Christmas sweets. One student named Katka told me that her favorite Christmas sweet to prepare is pracny (bear paws), namely because the recipe she uses was passed down from her grandmother. Katka bakes the bear paws with her twelve-year-old daughter and reminisces about the past when her grandmother used to bake them with her. She uses the baking form she inherited from her grandmother, and she’s intent on passing down both the tradition and the recipe to her daughter when the times comes.

Another student, Pavla, takes a different approach. Pavla relies on her mother to give her family an assortment of homemade Christmas sweets before the holiday. This frees Pavla up to try new recipes each year. That’s how she discovered the drunken Isador cake a few years back. Even though it’s got a touch of rum in it, she says it’s her eleven-year-old son’s favorite Christmas sweet. Her family is traveling to Sri Lanka to spend Christmas this year, so there wasn’t much time for baking, but she promised to at least make a pan of drunken Isador cakes for her sons to enjoy before they go.

Although my mother-in-law bakes many traditional Christmas sweets, she also prides herself on trying at least one new recipe each year, usually from the periodical for women called OnaDnes. When I checked the recipe section on OnaDnes, I found a Christmas sweets article featuring new variations on old favorites, including heart-shaped shortbread cookies with crushed pistachios in the dough, vanilla and cinnamon cupcakes and moon-shaped date and nut cakes topped with rum frosting.

With eight days and counting till Christmas, my kitchen floor is a sticky mess of confectioner’s sugar, honey and crushed pecans. I have made only two recipes from start to finish – snowballs and chocolate fudge. Half of the finished sweets have already ended up in my children’s stomachs. The sweets that haven’t been eaten have been set aside to take to their school Christmas performances. Time is running out, and I am back at the drawing board, which in this case happens to be my greasy kitchen counter.

Even though I had wanted to try a Czech recipe from start to finish, when I saw the ready-made gingerbread dough labeled “babiččiny perníkové těsto” (grandmother’s gingerbread dough) last week in the chilled section of the supermarket, I decided to give it a try. It would be faster than making my own gingerbread dough, which always turned out too sticky. With any luck, the children wouldn’t notice the difference.

The process started well when the children were able to roll the dough out without it sticking to the rolling pin. However, when they sampled a bit of the dough, they said it was ordinary (i.e. probably not sweet enough for them). In hindsight, we realized that the sprinkles we’d used had melted into weird colorful blobs. Our cookies looked scary and tasted only average. We cleaned up as best as we could, which meant eating about a dozen or so cookies (I guess they weren’t that bad), so that their father wouldn’t see we’d used store bought dough. We agreed to start again from scratch a different day.

When I mentioned my dilemma, my friend Katka recommended her gingerbread recipe. She swore that her fourteen year old son made the cookies from start to finish on his own, and she promised that if I followed the recipe, it wouldn’t be sticky. In contrast to some traditional Czech gingerbread recipes which need to be baked weeks in advance for the cookies to soften, Katka’s recipe uses baking soda as well as a lightening agent for specifically for gingerbread, so the dough rises, softens and can be eaten immediately. Apart from making the conversion to metric measurements, it looked easy enough.

Meanwhile, two Czech friends brought a sampling of Christmas sweets for my family to taste. As I accepted their gifts, I realized that it’s not important what I bake – whether I do it from scratch or from ready-made dough. What’s important is the process – taking time from the pre-holiday hubbub to get my hands a little sticky, my kitchen a little messy and, if I return my friends’ generosity, my heart a little warmer.

If you’re stressed thinking everyone else has finished holiday baking, don’t despair. Find a baking partner. Small children make excellent (if messy) ones. Put on your favorite holiday music. Focus on the moment. If your cookies turn out perfectly, please let me know your trick. If not, know that you aren’t alone.

I’m going to the store today to buy the ingredients for Katka’s gingerbread. If all goes well, I’ll have my cookies baked and decorated by this Sunday just as I had hoped. If not, you’ll find me on the 23rd decorating pen in hand. But, this year, it’ll be my choice.

Here’s Katka’s gingerbread recipe. It’s a favorite among school age children and a nice complement to afternoon tea or coffee.

Katka’s Gingerbread (translated into English)
40 dk flour (hladká mouka)
15 dk sugar (cukr)
5 dk butter (máslo)
3 level spoons of baking soda (jedlá soda)
1 sachet of gingerbread spice mix (kypřící prášek do perníku) sold near the baking soda
1 pinch of gingerbread spice (koření do perníku) sold in the spice section, adds a stronger gingerbread flavor but isn’t essential
2-3 spoons of unsweetened cocoa powder according to desire (Katka recommends 3 spoonfuls) often sold near coffee and hot chocolate

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