I first tried Zimsterne on Christmas Eve morning in 2009, having purchased a bag of the appealing little star-shaped cookies the day before from a bakery off the cathedral square in Colmar, a canal-filled city in the Alsace region of France. I had no idea what they would taste like, but found their chewy cinnamon qualities an immediate delight. It may be true that I ate the whole bag, it being Christmas Eve– an excellent excuse for such an indulgence.
I returned to the States from that holiday determined to recreate the little star-shaped cookies I’d tried. It took a little research, as I didn’t, at the time, know their name. But I figured out soon enough that they were Zimsterne, and holiday season 2010 found me trying out a few recipes I’d found online.
I ran into multiple problems. One was that the dough was so sticky it was nearly impossible to roll and cut, whether chilled, dusted with extra almond flour, or not. Even more difficult to work around was an instruction to apply a layer of royal icing to the rolled dough before cutting it. This led to dough that was now not only sticky, but also gloppy and moist. Not the most workable combination. To add to the problem, the pre-cutting application of royal icing led to wasted dough, as you couldn’t very well re-roll the scraps, since they were now sodden and coated in icing. In the oven, the icing rolled off the cookies and created great sugary bubbles around the star shapes. They were delicious– don’t get me wrong– but not exactly appealing to the eye, and although similar in taste, the texture was clearly not the dense, chewy, slightly cakey feel I’d enjoyed the year before.
Zimsterne were subsequently filed away in my “Perfect these in 2011” file.
So here we are… a year has passed, and I’ve devoted some time, this holiday baking season, to perfecting this cookie. I think it’s safe to report that, after some experimentation, I have hit upon the correct modifications to recipe and technique that I can now easily turn out the Zimsterne of my memory.
My Zimsterne are closely adapted from Chef Jacquy Pfeiffer’s recipe, as profiled in the article An Alsatian Christmas, by Martha Rose Shulman. I’ve made some minor adjustments, but I think they make all the difference in the world when it comes to ease of production and suitability for the home kitchen.
Most notably, I’ve replaced some of the almond meal with cake flour. The Zimsterne I remember from the Colmar bakery were– in my memory– just a little cakier than the cookies I produced the first few times I worked on this recipe. I decided to try subbing in some cake flour, and sure enough, this solved the problem of overly sticky dough, and also achieved the texture I remembered.
Next, I changed the ratios of powdered sugar to egg whites and lemon juice in the icing, to achieve a thicker end result. I find this keeps the icing on the cookie in the oven, and prevents it from sliding off to produce sugary bubbles on the sheet.
I dropped his step of freezing the cut cookies before baking, as I did not find it to have an effect on the end product.
Finally, I’ve changed the directions to specify icing each star cookie after it’s been cut, rather than icing the rolled dough all at once. Be sure to re-roll and cut additional stars from your scraps—this dough is too good to waste!
Zimsterne (Adapted from Chef Jacquy Pfeiffer)
- For The Dough:
- 3 cups almond flour
- 2 cups cake flour
- 1 1/2 cups sugar
- 1 3/4 cups powdered sugar, packed then sifted
- 1/3 cup egg whites
- 1/4 cup ground cinnamon
- 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
- For The Icing:
- 1 3/4 cups powdered sugar, packed then sifted
- 1/4 cup egg whites
- 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
- Using a stand mixer with the paddle/beater attachment, mix all the dough ingredients together at low speed until they come together to form a firm dough. It will be dark and sticky, but workable.
- Divide the dough into 3 batches. Sprinkle almond flour on a piece of parchment paper or a silpat. Place a batch of dough on top, and sprinkle it with almond flour as well. Place another sheet of parchment paper over the dough and roll the dough to a thickness of just under 1/2 inch. Remove the top piece of parchment.
- Using a small, (no more than 2 inch), star-shaped cookie cutter, (dip in water between each use, to help keep the dough from sticking to it), cut star shaped cookies and place them on a cookie sheet lined with parchment sprayed with vegetable oil, or a silpat. Remaining dough may be re-rolled and re-cut; be sure to sprinkle surfaces with almond flour each time to avoid sticking.
- Make the royal icing by stirring its 3 ingredients until the mixture is smooth. Using a pastry brush, spread a 1/16 inch layer of royal icing on each star cut-out, following the contours so that you create a filled-in star with the icing, too.
- Bake at 375 F for 15 minutes, until the cookies are risen and the royal icing is hard (very lightly golden is fine, too.) Remove from the oven, and after a few minutes, transfer to racks to cool.
- Allow to cool completely before stacking and storing the cookies in an airtight container.