Of Time and the Cookie Mold
by Anne L. Watson, from Baking with Cookie Molds
History told through a St. Nicholas fantasy as the good saint takes the narrator through time, looking at cookies, bakeries, molds, and how they developed.
You're at a December bake sale at a church hall, looking over a folding table arrayed with banana bread, brownies, and lemon bars. You notice a tray of cookies in the shape of a tall man with a pointed hat.
An elderly lady behind the table smiles at you. "It's Saint Nicholas: she says. "These are your traditional cookies for Saint Nicholas Eve. That's tonight!"
You buy one, but you still wonder, What tradition is that? You've never heard of traditional Saint Nicholas Eve cookies. Maybe that was just a gentle sales pitch?
On the other hand, your history books in school were mostly about dates and who won battles and who was king of what. They never mentioned ordinary people in the background who were quietly making cookies. So, you decide you really wouldn't know. Maybe there is such a tradition.
The thought of it is so tantalizing. Still holding the cookie, you close your eyes and wish you could travel through time to see for yourself. And when you open them, a man in a golden cloak and a bishop's tall red hat stands in front of you. It's Saint Nicholas!
"Let's take a walk through history: he says, "and look at the cookies."
At first, you're a little nervous—you've never met a saint before. And this isn't a greeting card Santa Claus, fat and jolly. He has a dark beard, and he holds a bishop's crook, the symbol of his office. But his eyes are kindly and his voice is soft. So you decide to follow him, and with a swirl of his cloak, the journey begins.
First he takes you to a city bakery in ancient Rome. Nervous, you hang back a little—what will these Romans think when they see you in modern clothes?
"Don't worry," says Saint Nicholas, seeming to read your thoughts. "No one can see or hear you, as long as you're with me"
You take a few steps closer, still cautious. The bakers are using a tile-lined oven that looks clean and efficient. But you can't quite see what they're baking.
"Are they cookies?" you ask.
"No, it's bread," says the saint. "But they're using a stamp to imprint the sign of their bakery on the dough. That may well be what cookie molds grew out of. But everything in its time."
As he says "time the scene tumbles like a kaleidoscope. A clock strikes. You're in a lane near the walls of a big stone church.
"Where are we now?" you ask.
"Medieval England:" says Saint Nicholas. "This is the grocers' street. See the signs over the doors? Most people can't read, so they know the shops by the pictures. Careful going by the fishmonger's shop—it's a bit messy."
It certainly is—no sign needed to identify this one. You hurry past, taking shallow breaths. Farther along, you see a cheese monger, a vintner, and a tiny spice shop. The shops have open windows—no glass—with a trading counter and a wooden awning.
As we approach the bakery, we see a burly man closing the shop. He swings the counter up and the awning down, and now they're upper and lower shutters that lock tightly. He hurries along the street, as if he's late for the next thing he needs to do.
"He's going to a meeting of the new guild of gingerbread makers,' says Saint Nicholas. "They're important men, at least for tradesmen, with higher status than ordinary bakers."
"Just men?" you ask. "Aren't there any women gingerbread makers?"
"I'm afraid not," says the saint. "Making gingerbread is hard physical work. Those molds are much bigger than any in your time, and the dough is made with rye, which means it's stiff and heavy. Let's see what they're baking now."
He offers you his hand, and taking it, you step easily through the stone walls of the shop. You look around the baking room, savoring the scent of gingerbread, of honey and spices. The master is away, but work goes on—two apprentices and a journeyman jostle each other in the heat from the oven.
"They work long hours," says Saint Nicholas. "They'll be here again before dawn tomorrow, baking bread for the day." An apprentice measures spices under the watchful eye of the journeyman.
"That ginger comes from China and India," Nicholas says. "So does that cinnamon. Traders bring them here on the Spice Route."
He shows you the baker's wooden cookie molds, made by master carvers with designs of nativities, saints, and castles. Cookies—themselves works of art—cool on a bulky wood table.
"Those cookies are for the rich," says Nicholas. "With all that goes into making them, they're naturally very expensive."
You leave the bakery in a swirl of his cloak. You fly through the air—there's a little turbulence this time, but you're with a saint, so you're not worried. When you come down, you're in a public square in Germany, and Nicholas tells you the year is 1487.
"There's a little boy with a cookie," you say.
"That cookie is a gift from Emperor Frederick," says Nicholas. "He's had thousands of them given out. It's a sort of popularity bid— giving away gingerbread. See? They're molded in his portrait."
Just before the boy bites off Frederick's head, you get a good look. Well, if the likeness is good, the emperor was no beauty, but the gingerbread did make him look delectable. You wonder whether the popularity ploy worked, but Saint Nicholas doesn't say.
"Over the years, many prominent people have fed their vanity with portraits carved into cookie molds." He looks a bit sheepish. "Of course, I might be the last person who should remark on that, with my own likeness on so many. But I can truthfully say I never commissioned one."
He smiles and taps the ground with his staff. Another whirl of time, and you're in a home in Scotland, on a sunny fall afternoon in the early sixteenth century. The housewife wears a soft brown dress and a full apron. Her sleeves are rolled up, and she's making shortbread, humming a little tune as she kneads and shapes the dough. A saucer-shaped mold lies ready to receive it.
"Is that a pineapple?" you ask in surprise, pointing to the design in the center of the mold.
"It does look like one, doesn't it?" says Saint Nicholas with a smile. "But no, it's a thistle."
Two children come into the room. As the housewife turns to see what they want, the kitchen dissolves around you, and you find yourself pushing through a crowded London street fair. Saint Nicholas points out a stall with molded gingerbread cookies, They're gaudily decorated to catch the eye.
"Spiced gingerbread, smoking hot!" the vendor calls.
A number of people push to buy the cookies. You guess they must be more affordable now—not just for the rich anymore. "Maybe these people are on their way to see one of Shakespeare's plays," says Saint Nicholas. Its 1595—the year A Midsummer Night's Dream was first performed."
Suddenly you're in Holland, sometime in the 1600s, with a baker working late on a December night. He's making spice cookies in the shape of Saint Nicholas and his donkey, to sell for the saint's feast day tomorrow.
"Happy name day," you tell the saint. "I meant to say that before, actually. What kind of cookies is he making?"
Saint Nicholas smiles. "It's called speculaas. In Germany, they call it speculatius."
"I see you didn't bring your donkey today," you say teasingly. "The church doesn't allow them at the bake sale, so I had to leave him home."
You laugh, forgetting you were ever uncomfortable with Saint Nicholas.
Evening comes and you're still in London, but now it's autumn of 1771. In a small room, two men are carving cookie molds from dense, dark wood. The older man watches the younger carefully—you can tell he's the teacher.
"What is he doing?" you ask.
"A bakery gave him a worn-out mold and asked him to make a new copy."
As the carver finishes, he copies even the date and signature of the old mold. Saint Nicholas raises his eyebrows.
"That's a practice that will cause some confusion in your own time."
The older man goes back to work on his own cookie mold— a portrait of King George, who will lose the British colonies in America.
You leave the men to their carving and wander along the street. You come upon a stall with gingerbread cookies made in the shapes of men and pigs to celebrate Bonfire Night. A crowd of street urchins jostles past.
"A penny for the guy!" they call as they go.
"If you haven't got a penny, a ha'penny will do.
If you haven't got a ha'penny, God bless you!"
"God bless you," says Saint Nicholas.
You don't offer a coin of your own. A penny from your time would really cause confusion.
Walking on, you leave miles and years behind with every step. You're in Austria now, and it's 1828. You stop in at a bakery. "What's that design?" you ask, pointing to a cookie.
"The emperor's giraffe," says Nicholas. "The Viceroy of Egypt gave it to him, and now everyone is giraffe mad." He sighs. "Lots of current goings-on and crazes get portrayed on cookies these days. They're used almost like newspapers. It's one way to keep things in the public eye!"
He shakes his head at this—somehow without losing his tall hat—but his eyes have crinkles of laughter at the corners.
"They also teach children to read by making gingerbread cookies with letters molded on top. The children get to eat the cookie only when they've learned the letter."
"That's quite an incentive program!" you say. "Does it work?" "Better than many other educational theories," says Saint Nicholas.
Three young women come into the shop. "Let's buy a cookie for Elsa with a baby on it," says one. "She's been wishing for a child this whole year. Look, there's one with a baby tree!"
"Maybe you should buy her husband that lion man cookie," says the other.
You look at the saint, puzzled. He coughs behind his hand. "Many people believe that cookie designs have powers to produce love, or children, or... ah...virility." He looks a bit embarrassed.
"Maybe it's just talk," you reassure him.
You and the saint leave the shop a little hurriedly. Turning a corner, you find yourself walking along a narrow street on a snowy evening in Switzerland. Looking in the window of a fine house, you see servants arranging trays of beautiful white cookies, lightly touched with color here and there.
"What kind of cookies are those?" you ask.
"Springerle. They make them all over Europe, this time of year. In America too, now, because of the many German and Swiss immigrants."
Guests are starting to arrive at the house as you and Saint Nicholas turn away from the window and walk on. You glimpse a bakery sign and head toward it. When you get there, you're in America, and it's Christmas Eve, 1880. Inside the bakery, you see a gingerbread house. "Oh, how pretty! You can almost imagine Hansel and Gretel nibbling on the roof."
The cookie molds in the baking room are different from the ones you've seen before. They're charming, but not as refined— more what you might call folk art. You notice how textures are emphasized, particularly in clothing on men and women, and in feathers and fur on animals. The faces, on the other hand, are much less realistic than on molds you've seen earlier.
"They're different," you say to Saint Nicholas. "Is it because we're not in Europe?" He shakes his head sadly. "No, these were made in Holland. But times have changed. Those fine molds—they just don't make them anymore."
"It's a long story," says Nicholas. "Honey in baking has now been replaced by sugar, and sugar makes it much harder to mold cookies. Metal cookie cutters have been invented, and they're faster and easier to use than molds. Also, cookies are starting to be made in factories. Here in the nineteenth century, many believe that machines do everything better."
You blink with surprise. "How could they think factory cookies are better?"
"They're more uniform. That impresses people because it's a novelty. And of course, mass-produced cookies are cheaper. So, small shops like this must compete the best they can. They've tried to speed up production first by using simpler molds, then by using combination cookie molds and cutters. They even have combination boards that press and cut out several cookies at once."
"Does that work?"
He shrugs. "Not really. The old molds made far lovelier cookies. The ones from cutter boards aren't really much better than ones made with plain cutters. And with all that metal embedded in the boards, they tend to break and split. Molded cookies just can't compete anymore."
You sigh as you leave the shop, and the wind gusts, echoing your breath. The saint's cloak flutters like a flag. "Where next?" you ask.
"We could go on forever," says Saint Nicholas. "We could go to Japan, and watch them make rakugan in beautiful wooden molds they call kashigata. Or go to Russia and try prianiki."
"What are those?"
"A bit like gingerbread. Then there's ma'mool in Syria and Lebanon, biberli in Switzerland, moon cookies in China, and many more. I've showed you just a few kinds—mostly the ones you might see at home. If you keep looking, you'll find molded cookies all over the world."
He raps the ground with his staff, and his cloak billows again. You blink, and you're back in the present. A woman in an apartment kitchen is making molded cookies for a cookie exchange at work on Monday.
At least, she's trying to. On each attempt, her cookie sticks to the mold, and her kitchen is fast approaching disaster status. Her counters are piled high with cooking equipment, ingredients, and wadded paper towels. Flour, sugar, and blobs of dough are scattered across the floor. The way things are going, all she'll be able to contribute to that cookie exchange are apologies.
"I guess I'll have to buy cookies this year." She slams a few dishes into the dishwasher and sighs. "Why in the world—why in the world—isn't there a book about baking with cookie molds?"
The woman's kitchen fades to nothing, and you're back in the church hall where you started. Saint Nicholas raises his hand slightly, a wave or a blessing, and he too is fading. But just before he vanishes completely, you faintly hear one last thing: "Don't forget about the honey!"
You stare wide-eyed at where the saint just stood. Did that really happen?
You find a table in the café corner of the bake sale, buy coffee and a bagel, and sit quietly for a while. And then you begin to wonder: What's a lion man? Why did they care whether the cookies were uniform? Where can I get a mold to try my own cookies?
Just before you leave, you see the woman from the messy kitchen approaching the table with the cookies of Saint Nicholas. You catch her eye and smile.
It's Saint Nicholas Eve, you tell her silently. Make a wish.
Baking with Cookie Molds, by Anne L. Watson, Shepard Publications, 2010, 2018.
And so, here is the book to answer questions about cooking baking with molds. Recipes and technique explained to successfully make beautiful molded cookies—especially St. Nicholas, of course! Updated, expanded, and full-color edition.
Purchase from amazon.com, amazon.ca or amazon.uk.
Cookie Molds Around the Year: An Almanac of Molds, Cookies, and Other Treats for Christmas, New Year's, Valentine's Day, Easter, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Other Holidays, and Every Season, by Anne L. Watson, Next River Books, 2017.
More recipes, more tips, and more beautiful photos of molded cookies for every occasion. A good companion and expansion to Baking with Cookie Molds.
Purchase from amazon.com, amazon.ca or amazon.uk and help support stnicholascenter.org; thank you.
From Anne L. Watson, Baking with Cookie Molds, Shepard Publications, 2016. Used by permission.
Pictured molds are all from the St Nicholas Center collection.