Today marks the official beginning of “Carnival”. It goes by many names in German, depending on the region and dialect. Whether you call it “Fastnacht”, “Fasching” or “Karneval”, it is a time for revelry, humor, and satire.
The actual celebrations of the German Carnival take place 40 days before Easter, it is like a last week-long party before Ash Wednesday (“Aschermittwoch”) and the beginning of Lent (“Fastenzeit”).
The Carnival celebrations kick off with "Women’s Carnival Day" (“Weiberfastnacht”) at exactly 11.11 a.m. The next highlight is “Rose Monday” (“Rosenmontag”). Marching bands, dancers, and floats parade down the streets, throwing confetti, sweets, little bundles of flowers and toys. The elaborate floats often show caricatured figures mocking politicians and other personalities and thousands of dressed-up Germans are flocking the streets every year to watch this spectacle.
Almost every German city celebrates Carnival and organizes a street parade in its city center. The best and most traditional Carnival festivities take place in the Cities of Cologne, Düsseldorf, Münster, Aachen, and Mainz.
On "Shrove Tuesday"("Veilchendienstag"), costume balls are held all over Germany, while the quiet "Ash Wednesday" ("Aschermittwoch") marks the end of the frenzied fun.
As with every longstanding tradition, special food is served during the Carnival period. So during the next couple of days, the so-called "fifth season" ("fünfte Jahreszeit"), I will be baking some wonderful traditional Carnival treats. Pastries that are particular to Carnival, for example “Krapfen” (Doughnuts) or “Mutzenmandeln” (Almond Cookies), are prepared as a special pre-Lenten delicacy. These fried treats are traditionally filled with jam or jelly and/or sprinkled with cinnamon sugar.
So, as the celebrations start today, on so-called "Weiberfastnacht", the kids will put on their respective costumes before they leave the house to go to school. Particularly in elementary schools, classes will be replaced by costume and/or Carnival parties. Schools will also be closed for the next six days.
Today, I will start my Carnival baking frenzy with traditional “Mutzenmandeln”.
Mutzenmandeln are almond-shaped pastries or cookies made from a medium stiff dough with baking powder as a leavening agent. The dough is prepared with or without ground almonds, cinnamon, real vanilla and some dark rum (or whole milk). Personally, I much prefer the version containing almonds. We love the taste of ground nuts, particularly almonds, in baked goods. You can buy these cookies at many bakeries in Cologne and in the lower Rhine region during Carnival, but they are easy to make at home and they do taste so much better when you bake them yourself.
The dough has to be rolled out and, here comes the fun part, you cut out the cookies using a special cookie cutter that cuts twenty almond shaped cookies at the same time. The cookies get fried in vegetable shortening, or oil, drained on paper towels and dusted with powdered sugar while still lukewarm.
While the special cookie cutter might not be available everywhere (www.staedter.de), the cookies can also be cut out by using a tear drop cookie cutter set, such as the one from Ateco (Ateco Tear Drop Metal Cookie Cutter Set available for example at www.amazon.com).
Recipe for "Mutzenmandeln"
Ingredients for the Cookies
- 3 large eggs plus 1 egg yolk (use organic or free range whenever possible)
- 3 tbs dark rum (or whole milk)
- 175 g (6 ounces) powdered sugar, sifted
- 75 g (2,6 ounces) unsalted butter, room temperature
- 200 g (7 ounces) almond meal (or grind the almonds yourself, skin on)
- 400 g (14 ounces) plain or AP flour
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon, preferably from Ceylon
- 2 tsp pure vanilla sugar (homemade or store bought)
- some more powdered sugar for dusting the fried cookies
Preparation of the Cookies
1. With an electric hand mixer or a standing mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, beat the whole eggs and the egg yolk together with the rum (if using) or the milk, until frothy.
2. Add the powdered sugar and continue whisking for a few minutes.
3. Cut the softened butter into small pieces and gradually add to the dough mixture.
4. In a medium bowl whisk together almond meal, flour and baking powder.
5. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture and slowly beat until the whole dough comes together ( it will be sticky). If the dough is very soft, place it in the refrigerator for about one hour.
6. In a deep fryer heat your oil or vegetable shortening until it reaches 180 degrees Celsius (350 degrees Fahrenheit).
7. Divide the dough into four parts. While rolling out 1/4 of the dough to a 1 centimeter (0.4 inch) thickness, you can keep the rest of the dough in the refrigerator.
8. Cut out the cookies preferably using an almond or tear shaped cookie cutter.
9. Deep-fry the cookies for about three to five minutes or until they have a deep golden color.
10. Transfer to a paper-lined cookie sheet to get rid of some of the grease used for frying.
11. While still lukewarm, liberally dust with powdered sugar.
NOTE: while the cookies taste best the day they are made, they do keep well for up to a week if properly stored. If we have any left-over cookies, I like to use a large glass or porcelain container to keep them as fresh as possible.
Part II of my Carnival Celebrations Series tomorrow will feature a so-called "Doughnut Cake" or “Krapfen-Kuchen”, a cake with a yeast-based dough that gets baked and not fried. - So, let the celebrations begin!