Whenever I make the gluten-free, cut-out cookies Austrian Cinnamon Stars, I think of my late father. Although he was neither an ardent cook nor baker, every holiday season he and I spent at least one night in the kitchen baking and decorating cut-out Christmas cookies. The tricks he employed to ensure beautiful holiday sweets are ones that I use to this day.
If making the aforementioned Austrian cinnamon stars and any other cut-out cookies possessing a soft, sticky texture, I refrigerate the dough for at least 30 minutes before rolling it out. After mixing the ingredients for the cookie dough, I shape it into a ball, cover it with plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, about 30 minutes. Depending on the size and tackiness of the dough, it may need to stay in the fridge for a little longer or shorter. No matter what, it shouldn’t get cold and stiff. If it reaches that stage, it’ll be difficult to roll and cut.
Another trick that my father taught me was that, to stop cookie dough from sticking to the rolling pin, use a piece of parchment or wax paper as my work surface and, in the case of Austrian cinnamon stars, dust confectioner’s sugar over it. Plop the dough in the center of the work surface, sprinkle more confectioner’s sugar — or flour, if making other cookies — over the top and place another piece of parchment or wax paper on top of that. Roll out the dough to the desired thickness. Once that’s accomplished, chill it slightly before cutting out the cookies. Note that the rolled out dough stays between the papers until it’s ready to be cut.
One problem that my dad and I encountered early on in our annual baking stint was getting a perfectly shaped cookie safely onto the baking sheet. Perhaps it was the meticulous engineer or hobbyist woodworker in him but my father would painstakingly run a sharp paring knife around the cookie cutter before lifting it from the dough. He would then do the same around the interior of the cutter, loosening the dough from the form. A slight tap on the side or top of the cutter and the cookie fell gently onto the greased baking sheet. This took time and perseverance but our snowmen, Santas and candy canes were all uniform in size and shape.
Since I lack my late father’s patience and precision, I use a different trick, one that he might appreciate. I keep my tools clean and cool. Before cutting out cookies, I run my cutters under cold water. After drying, they’re ready to go. If any dough starts to collect around the rims, I wash them under cold, running water again. I follow this practice not only for Austrian cinnamon stars but also for any other cut-out cookie that I make.
I mentioned Austrian cinnamon stars in an earlier post on what to eat at European Christmas markets. Known in Austria as zimtsterne, these star-shaped, cut-out cookies contain ground almonds, cinnamon, egg whites, confectioner’s and cherry liqueur. They are a lovely sweet and a perfect way to employ all of my father’s techniques.
AUSTRIAN CINNAMON STARS (ZIMTSTERNE)
Makes approximately 3 dozen cookies
2 large egg whites
1 1/2 cups confectioner’s sugar, sifted, plus more for dusting
2 cups ground almonds
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons kirsch
In medium bowl beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. Once you have soft peaks, slowly add the confectioner’s sugar, beating with each addition until the mixture is smooth and glossy.
Spoon out 1/3 cup of sugary egg whites, place in another bowl and set aside. You will use this later to ice your cookies.
Fold the almonds, cinnamon, kirsch, nutmeg and salt into the remaining . When the ingredients are fully incorporated, you will have a sticky dough. Cover it with plastic wrap and refrigerate for a minimum of 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Dust a clean work surface with confectioner’s sugar.
Place the dough on the dusted work surface. Sprinkle more confectioner’s sugar on top of the dough to make it less sticky.
Lay a large piece of parchment paper over the sugar-dusted dough. Using a rolling pin, roll out the dough to about 1/4-inch thickness.
Remove the parchment paper. Using a star-shaped cookie cutter, cut out the cookies and place them on the parchment-lined baking sheets. If at any point the cookie cutter becomes caked in dough, rinse it off under cold, running water.
Spread a thin layer of leftover meringue over each cookie. If the meringue icing has hardened and is difficult to spread, add a drop or two of water to the mixture and stir until well combined. Continue spreading over the cookies until all the stars are iced.
Bake the cookies for 10 to 13 minutes or until the icing has set but has not begun to brown. Remove the cookies from the oven and allow them to cool for 5 minutes. Remove them from the baking sheets and cool completely on wire racks before storing in airtight containers.