Today I’d like to kick off the holiday cookie season by bringing you the recipe for a very unique cookie – The German Roll. Only slightly sweet, coated with a dusting of walnuts, this little delicacy is almost more bread-like than any cookie I’ve nibbled before. I was introduced to them by one of my best friends, John Richards.
John’s grandmother would make these every year for Christmas. It was love at first bite for me! Each year I would send some of my Christmas cookies to Ohio with John when he went home for the holidays and then he would return with some of these elusive German Rolls for me.
I’ve never found their like. I have googled “German Rolls, German Christmas Cookies,” you name it, to no avail. Totally mysterious! I really wanted to get the recipe, so I asked John if his family would be willing to share. He was sure that they would, though he cautioned me that he thought the recipe might be somewhat difficult to recreate. You know, it was once of those recipes that had been passed down for years. One that the family matriarch had mastered; one that they could literally nail in their sleep. But to an outsider, it was full of inaccurate measurements like “a tablespoon” which didn’t mean the standardized tablespoon, but a particular wooden spoon that their husband had carved for them when they first married. And truly subjective instructions like “just mix it up until the dough looks right”. So, although we loved these cookies, we were a bit intimidated and took no action, but kept the idea of making them on the back burner.
It has been several years now since we lost Cecilia Batya, John’s Gramma. Today is actually the anniversary of her passing. You might have assumed she was German, you know what with the cookies being called “German Rolls”, but no. Cecilia, born Cecelia Smocer, was from Slovakia.
She immigrated with her family to the United States at the age of nine and settled into a small coal mining town in Pennsylvania. There she met and married Joseph Batya.
They had six children,
followed by a dozen or so grandchildren and many great and great-great grandchildren by the time she passed at the age of 98 years. Cecelia learned the recipe from her mother, Bubbha. It is thought that she may have gotten the recipe from one of the German women in their local church, St. Hedwig. From what we hear, many folks in the town requested that Cecelia and her mother bake these cookies not only for Christmas but also for weddings and other celebrations.
Cecilia brought this recipe with her as the family migrated further west into Cleveland after the coal mines closed. She taught her three daughters Marguerite, Antoinette and Kathy how to make these German Rolls along with many other of the traditional Slovak dishes like Kolache and Bobalki.
John & his sister Heather have now taken on the Christmas cookie making mantle for the Batya clan and were determined to make German Rolls this year. Their Aunt Antoinette had written the recipe down for me several years ago, so we all got together one afternoon to give it a whirl. Now what I will say is this is a strange recipe! It taught me quite a lot! First of all, we had to find cake yeast. Apparently many stores only stock it around Christmas time and we knew that this recipe might take several times to master, so our efforts had begun in early November. No cake yeast in sight. Literally a cake yeast free zone. So I got busy trying to figure out the conversion so that I could use dry yeast. Scalding the milk was the next thing that I pondered. I was under the impression that when an old time recipe contained this step that it wasn’t really necessary. I thought that it was done in the days before pasteurization to make sure there wasn’t any bacteria present. Turns out, that when making a yeast bread, scalding the milk is actually an important step. The whey protein in milk can weaken gluten and prevent the dough from rising properly. Scalding the milk deactivates the protein so this doesn’t happen. It makes the milk a better food source for the yeast, so you get a quicker rise and fluffier product. The dough is smoother and retains moisture much better.
And then, just when you think the rest of the recipe would be straight forward, you are instructed to wrap the cookie dough in a cheese cloth, submerge it in water and wait for it to float. What! I have never come across this in any other recipe. So I looked around online to see if I could find anything about this proofing method. I was able to find this reference from a book by Andrew Whitly entitled “Bread Matters”. He states that “an original method of judging proof is given in a famous Russian Cookbook and household manual from the 1860’s called “A Gift to Young Housewives” by Elena Molohkovets.” She wrote:
“After molding the dough made with fine flour, you may put the loaves in a bucket of water (the temperature of a river in summer) where they will lie on the bottom until they are fully proofed. When they float to the surface, put them straight into the oven…..Incidentally if you are proofing bread on the table, you can put a small test piece of dough into cold water; when it rises to the surface, you can put all your loaves into the oven.”
Weird right!!! But we did it and achieved flotation! Here is the photographic proof of the proofing!
Success! From what I understand, if the dough doesn’t float, you are done for. Mission accomplished!
We were quite happy with these little gems. And having made them ourselves, appreciated them all the more. I’m telling you, a German Roll (or two or so…) is absolute perfection with a nice cup of tea.
So were these cookies exactly like Cecilia’s? Well they were very close. I don’t doubt that she was smiling down on us with great amusement as we tried to fill her cookie baking shoes, which of course, can not ever be done. Cecilia was such an amazing woman. The true matriarch of the Batya clan and very much beloved, she cemented the family together. We won’t see her like again. By recording her recipe for these German Rolls we have been able to capture some sweet memories and a tradition will continue to endure for new generations to come. We think Cecilia would definitely approve!
***If anyone out there reading this is familiar with these cookies – I would love to hear from you! Please leave me a comment.
recipe from: The Batya Clan
- 1 lb. Crisco
- 1 Cup scalded milk (heated to 180° F)
- 1 ounce of Cake yeast (10.5 grams or 3 1/4 tsp + 1/8 tsp of dry yeast)
- 6 Cups all-purpose flour ( add up to 1 additional cup as needed)
- 1/2 Cup granulated sugar
- 4 Eggs, beaten
- 1 teaspoon salt
For the coating:
- 4 Cups ground nuts (walnuts are traditional, but pecans or whatever you prefer)
- 3/4 Cup sugar
Preheat oven to 350°F. Line a cookie sheet with Parchment paper or lightly grease it.
Place four cups of the nuts of your choice in a food processor and pulse a few times until ground. Add 3/4 cup sugar and pulse to combine. Place in bowl and set aside.
Scald milk by heating to 180° F. Scalding deactivates the whey protein found in milk. This protein can weaken gluten and prevent the dough from rising properly. Allow milk to cool to lukewarm (between 98° – 105° F). Add yeast to milk and stir to dissolve.
Mix flour and crisco together, as you would do for pie dough. You can do this by hand, or in a food processor. Add sugar and salt to the mixture. If dough seems too rich, add up to one cup of flour to firm it up.
Add yeast mixture and beaten eggs to flour mixture. Mix well, until a smooth dough is achieved. No serious kneading is necessary. Again, this can be done by hand, or in a stand mixer.
Fill a large dough rising bucket or Dutch oven or bowl half-full of cool water.
Form dough into a large ball and place in the center of a cheesecloth (or you can use a flour sack kitchen towel). Twist the ends of the cloth loosely around the ball and place it in the water. Add more water to almost cover dough ball.
Soak the dough in water until it becomes boyant, about 1 1/2 hours but no longer.
When ready, put hand under dough ball and undo the cloth, letting the water drain a bit. Flip dough gently onto a large platter.
Drop hearty tablespoons of dough (I used a Tablespoon (size#40) cookie dough scoop – link below- so that all the cookies are uniform) onto the nut/sugar mixture. The dough will likely be sticky, but if you coat it a bit before rolling a shaping,and use a light touch, it works pretty well.
Roll into approximate 8″ strand. Tie it into a loose single loop knot, leaving enough dough (about 2″ at each end) to wrap around the strand one wore time. bring one end around and down through the center and the other end around and up through the center.
Transfer the German Rolls to a parchment lined cookie sheet and bake for 15- 20 minutes or until lightly browned.
***I’m told by the Batya clan that these cookies freeze well!
Links for helpful Kitchen Tools & Ingredients for German Rolls