Last Friday night, I put Hugo to bed and tip-toed out of the bedroom as I usually do, hearing him settle into his crib for the night as I closed the door behind me. I walked carefully down the hallway and into the warm, golden-lit living room where my mother sat on the couch, surrounded by the last few weeks of New Yorker issues. I waited twenty minutes, mostly for my own benefit, since nary a peep was coming from the back room, then put on my shoes, took the car keys and walked out the front door. For the first time since Hugo's birth, I was going out on my own.
Over the past few months, I'd left Hugo a handful of times with my mother or mother-in-law during the day when I had to run an errand or meet a journalist to promote the book. But I was never gone longer than an hour or two and I'd never left him in the evening before. Dinners out or a movie night with Max were a distant, hazy memory. But earlier that week, my friend Joanie had called me to say that the annual Springerle evening, when she and our friend Ann get together to make the molded, anise-flavored cookies for Christmas, had been moved up by a few weeks because she needed to have hand surgery in December. Did I want to come? Around 7:00 pm on Friday? She'd already asked my mother if she wouldn't mind babysitting. (Max was in Kassel.) With only a tiny squiggle of adrenaline at the thought of leaving Hugo at bedtime, I said yes.
When I got to Joanie's, things were already in full swing. In the kitchen, Joanie's mother-in-law's East Prussian gingerbread dough, so thick with honey and flour that Dietrich, her husband, had to use a drill to mix it, ripened on a chair wedged next to the fridge. It would get rolled out and cut the following week. The big batch of the Springerle dough, fluffy with beaten eggs and sugar, was in the living room on the dining table. Between Joan, Ann and my mother, their collection of wooden Springerle molds is practically museum-worthy. The wooden molds were spread out all over the table as Joanie and Ann worked, armed with little brushes, mounds of flour for dusting and sharp-pointed knives to clean out crevices if some errant dough got stuck.
First, they selected a mold. A shell, perhaps, or a lamb carrying a flag, or a winged angel. Then they dusted a bit of flour into the clean mold. After that, they pinched off a lump of dough corresponding in size to the mold, rolled it into an egg-like shape and then dusted that liberally with flour, too. The lump of dough then was pushed firmly onto and into the mold and the edges were trimmed. All that was left was to very carefully peel the formed dough off the mold and lay it onto the anise-strewn cookie sheet. We did this over and over again until all the dough was gone and the cookie sheets were filled with tiny masterpieces.
The unbaked cookies have to rest overnight before being baked. The key to Springerle is not letting them brown in the oven, though they do develop little "feet", like French macarons, as they bake. When they're done, Springerle look like they've been formed out of clay. This might lead you to think that they don't taste very good, but they are my favorite of all the Christmas cookies, delicate and sweet, with that haunting anise flavor. They store well and although they do get very hard with time, all you need to do is slip a slice of apple into their tin and they'll remain slightly cakey instead of rock-hard. (Though rock-hard is actually how I like them, the better for dunking into tea.)
When we were finished, we cleaned off the table, putting all the molds into the empty bowl, sweeping up the leftover flour, scraping the molds clean and wiping down the table. Then Joanie heated up a pot of borscht while Dietrich and I set the table. We ate the hot soup, dotted with spoonfuls of sour yogurt, with slices of dark bread. It was warm and cozy. As always, at Joanie's house, I felt my most calm and comfortable. But the minutes were ticking by and I soon found myself getting antsy, checking my watch. I wanted to be home again, just down the hall from my sleeping baby. So I said my goodbyes, got back in the car and drove down the emptying highway towards Charlottenburg.
Back home, things were as I had left them: My mother on the couch, Hugo asleep in his little crib. But it felt like the world had just expanded somehow. A tiny glimmer of my old life was visible again. Or, no, I guess I'd just seen a tiny glimmer of my new life, the one where Hugo no longer needs me near him 24 hours a day, where I can once again leave the house at times without him, feeling both liberated and like I've left a piece of me behind. It was thrilling and a little bittersweet, too.
Want to make your own Springerle?