"While you're here visiting our country," my Swiss hostess confided, "I know you'll be interested in our assortment of gutzi."
"Well, er -- perhaps," I agreed, fleetingly conjuring up images of designer shoes. But indeed, my hostess was right on target.
As every Swiss knows and will explain with a fond smile, gutzi is the Swiss German word for cookies. I was in Switzerland primarily to research its food, and since I had authored an international cookie cookbook, I was (and still am) partial to these sweets.
One thing I discovered almost immediately is that the Swiss love cookies as much as Americans do. It is no coincidence that many Swiss cookies -- from brunsli and biberli to leckerli and Mailanderli -- have names that end in "li." In Swiss German, this ending is added to suggest affection; it's used the same way we use "ies" to produce words like birdies, kiddies or Twinkies.
I also quickly discovered that gutzi come in great variety: fragrant honey-spice crisps, butter cookies, tinted marzipan /^ cakes, airy meringues and chewy macaroonlike sweets are among the most widely enjoyed. Chocolate turns up in cookies occasionally, though not as often as one might expect in a country known for superior chocolate.
My introduction to gutzi came in northwestern Switzerland in Basel, an ancient, beautiful city that straddles the Rhine river and borders both Germany and France. As it turns out, it was not surprising my hostess mentioned gutzi, since her city is famous for two different kinds: a chewy, chocolaty cookie called brunsli and a thin, spicy crisp called Basel leckerli.
I learned more about the latter variety as my hostess showed me around the town. One of our first stops was the Leckerli House, a quaint cottagelike shop that offers bright tins of the crunchy, sugar-glazed cookies and kits for making miniature leckerli houses at home. The shopkeeper said that Basel leckerli have a long tradition and actually hark back to the time the city was a major European spice importing center. (Later on our walk, my hostess pointed out another reminder of the flourishing spice trade of the past -- two narrow, picturesque passageways named Pepper and Ginger streets where the spice merchants once lived.)
My gutzi lesson continued later when we stopped at a cafe that happened to have freshly baked brunsli in its pastry case. As is typical, the ones we enjoyed were a chewy-crispy amalgam of dark chocolate, almonds, egg whites, cinnamon and cloves. No wonder these are famous throughout Switzerland.
Still more opportunities to learn about Swiss cookies came the next afternoon when I visited the annual Basel Autumn Fair, a late October outdoor fair featuring food and craft stalls, music and children's rides. One booth I stopped at was selling individually wrapped filled cookies called biberli. These were dark, spicy, exotic-tasting squares sandwiched around a layer of marzipan. Biberli are a very old-fashioned sweet, the girl at the counter explained, and keep well due to the marzipan, honey and spices in the dough.
At another stall I purchased some pretty ceramic cookie molds similar to the hand-carved wooden ones traditionally used for German springerle cookies. However, the vendor emphasized that the Swiss generally use them to make cookies called hazelnut leckerli instead. A Christmas specialty of the capital city, Bern, hazelnut leckerli are not at all like the Basel version I had obtained at the Leckerli House. The Bern cookies don't contain honey, are not thin and are embossed, not iced, on top.
As I discovered a few days later, no gutzi education is complete without a visit to Switzerland's unofficial sweets capital, Zurich. Here, in one of the city's most charming and best-loved cafes, Sprungli am Paradeplatz, I took my first bites of the addictive almond-meringue cookies known as Luxembourgerli. (The name means "little Luxembourgers," and the recipe was supposedly brought to Switzerland by a Luxembourg chef.) One of the cafe's specialties, these are delicious button-sized puffs sandwiched together with a rich buttercream. Most Swiss seem to consider Luxembourgerli professional bakery cookies not to be attempted the home cook. But after considerable experimentation, I created a version that can be made at home, and feel they are well worth the trouble. They look especially pretty on a Christmas tray.
While in Zurich I also stopped by the venerable old Cafe Schober, where basket upon basket of imprinted, cut-out, iced, tinted, painted, piped and beribboned cookies dazzled me and more of those names -- like wissi leckerli and Mailanderli and Linzerli -- danced in my head. With Advent at hand and Christmas fast approaching, the staff told me the usual Swiss interest in cookies would be increasing, and that they were already prepared to meet the demand.
As I strolled about admiring the incredible array, I was reminded of a comment my hostess in Basel had made. "I just can't imagine a Swiss Christmas without gutzi," she confided. After my visit to Switzerland, neither can I.
Here are recipes for several of my favorite gutzi.
Basel honey-spice cookies (Basel leckerli)
Makes 50 to 60 1-by-2 1/2 -inch bars.
Crunchy-chewy and fragrant with citrus and cinnamon, these ara type of honey-spice cookie, or lebkuchen, that has been popular in Europe for centuries. Basel leckerli are bar-shaped and topped with a sugar glaze. They keep extremely well.
2/3 cup clover honey
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon kirsch (cherry brandy), or orange juice
2 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
finely grated peel (yellow part only) of 1 large lemon
1/4 cup finely chopped candied lemon peel
1/4 cup finely chopped candied orange peel
2/3 cup finely chopped blanched slivered almonds
about 2 1/4 to 2 1/3 cups all-purpose or unbleached white flour
glaze 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
1/8 teaspoon vanilla extract
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Generously grease two 10-by-14-inch or larger baking sheets. Stir together honey, sugar and kirsch in a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat. Heat mixture, stirring, until sugar completely dissolves and mixture is hot but .. not boiling. Remove from heat and stir in spices, lemon peel, candied peels and almonds until evenly incorporated. Stirring vigorously, gradually add 2 1/4 cups flour to pan; mixture will become very stiff. If mixture feels sticky and too soft to roll out, stir or knead in a bit more flour, but be careful not to overflour. Set mixture aside until cooled to barely warm.
Sprinkle a work surface generously with flour. Divide dough in half. Roll out half of dough into an 8 1/2 -by-13-inch rectangle, frequently running a spatula under dough and dusting work surface. As needed, also dust top of dough and rolling pin with flour. Transfer dough to baking sheet. Repeat with second portion. Prick dough lightly all over with tines of a fork.
Stagger baking sheets on racks in center third of oven; switch positions halfway through baking to ensure even browning. Bake for 13 to 16 minutes or until dough top is just tinged with brown and slightly darker on edges; avoid overbaking as cookies will become too crunchy and hard. Carefully run a spatula under dough rectangles to loosen from pans.
When just cool enough to handle, transfer rectangles to cutting board and cut away uneven, dry edges using a large serrated knife. Deeply score rectangle, but do not cut completely through surface, lengthwise and crosswise, to yield about 1-by-2 1/2 -inch bars. Return scored rectangles to baking sheets. In a small saucepan stir together powdered sugar, vanilla and 3 tablespoons water until thoroughly blended. Bring mixture to a boil, stirring. Boil, stirring, for 20 to 30 seconds, until smooth, very fluid and translucent. Dividing mixture between rectangles, pour over top and quickly spread glaze over entire surface. Let stand until glaze sets and icing turns white again, about 1 hour. Bend rectangles to break apart or cut through score marks to separate into bars. Let stand until glaze is dry and hard. Pack airtight. Store for up to 3 weeks or more.
Rolled buttery lemon cookies (Mailanderli)
Makes 50 to 60 cookies.
Crisp and buttery, these are a bit like American sugar cookies and butter cookies, but not the same as either one. They have have a light lemon flavor.
1 stick ( 1/2 cup) butter, slightly softened
2/3 cup granulated sugar, plus 1 to 2 tablespoons more for garnishing cookies
1 large egg
finely grated peel (yellow part only) of 1 large lemon
1 3/4 cups all-purpose or unbleached white flour
1 large egg yolk beaten with 1 tablespoon water for glazing cookies
Grease several baking sheets and set aside. With mixer on medium speed, beat butter in a large mixer bowl until light and fluffy. Beat in sugar until well blended and smooth. Beat in egg and lemon peel. With mixer on low speed, beat in flour just until evenly incorporated.
Divide dough in half. Place each portion between large sheets of wax paper. Using a rolling pin, roll out dough a scant 1/4 inch thick. Check undersides and smooth out any wrinkles in paper. Stack portions on a tray or baking sheet. Refrigerate for about 20 minutes or until cold and firm, but not hard.
Heat oven to 375 degrees. Working with one chilled portion at a time (keep other one chilled), peel away a layer of wax paper. (This will make it easier to lift cookies from paper later.) Replace paper and turn dough over. Peel off second layer of paper. Using 2-inch round or scalloped cutter (or small juice or sherry glass) cut out cookies. Using a spatula carefully lift cookies from paper and space about 1 inch apart on baking sheets. Reroll dough scraps between wax paper; rechill in refrigerator. Then continue cutting out cookies. Repeat process with second dough portion.
Working with a few cookies at a time, brush tops with egg yolk-water mixture using a pastry brush or paper towel. Sprinkle tops lightly with granulated sugar. Repeat until all cookies are garnished.
Bake cookies for 6 to 9 minutes or until just slightly darker at the edges. Let cool on baking sheets for about 2 minutes. Transfer cookies to wire racks and let stand until thoroughly cooled. Store airtight for up to a week. Freeze for longer storage.
Basel chocolate-spice cookies (Basel brunsli)
Makes about 40 2 1/2 -inch cookies.
These tasty cookies have a chewy-crisp texture slightly reminiscent of macaroons. However, Brunsli are rolled and cut ,, out with heart-shaped or other cookie cutters.
1 1/4 cups (about 7 ounces) blanched whole almonds
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
3 1/2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
2 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
3 ounces bittersweet (not unsweetened) or semisweet chocolate, chopped fairly fine
generous 1/4 teaspoon almond extract
2 large egg whites
about 2 to 5 tablespoons confectioners sugar for rolling out cookies
Heat oven to 325 degrees. Line several baking sheets with aluminum foil.
In a food processor, process almonds and 1 cup powdered sugar until almonds are powder-fine but not oily; stop processor and scrape down sides several times. Add cocoa powder, cinnamon, cloves and chocolate and continue processing until chocolate is finely ground. Add remaining 1/2 cup powdered sugar, almond extract and egg whites and process until mixture is blended and just forms a mass. Set dough aside for 5 to 10 minutes to stiffen slightly.
Generously dust a work surface with powdered sugar. If dough seems too soft to roll out easily, dust it with more sugar and knead until consistency is manageable, but avoid adding any more sugar than absolutely necessary. Roll out dough 1/4 inch thick, lifting it with a spatula frequently and redusting surface and rolling pin with powdered sugar to prevent sticking. Cut out cookies using 2 1/4 -inch heart-shaped (or similar) cutter. Using a spatula, transfer cookies to foil about 1 inch apart.
Bake cookies for 9 to 12 minutes or until almost firm on top and slightly puffy. Let them stand on foil until completely cooled. Peel from foil. Store airtight for 3 or 4 days. Freeze, airtight, for longer storage.
Adapted from "The International Cookie Cookbook," by Nancy Baggett (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1988, 24.95).
Makes about 40 1 1/4 -inch sandwich cookies.
Traditionally, these cookies, known as Luxembourgerli, are piped from a pastry bag into little button-shaped rounds, but they can be prepared (and will taste just as good) simply dropped from a spoon into tiny kisses. In this recipe, the cookies are sandwiched around an easy raspberry buttercream frosting, which adds festive color as well as great flavor. You'll need a stand mixer for this recipe.
FOR THE COOKIES:
1 1/4 cups (about 4 ounces) blanched almond slices
1 cup powdered sugar
1/2 cup egg whites (4 to 5), completely free of yolk
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
scant 1/8 teaspoon almond extract
FOR THE RASPBERRY BUTTERCREAM:
6 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, slightly softened
1 1/4 cups powdered sugar
1/3 cup seedless raspberry preserves or jam
Heat oven to 325 degrees. Line two very large baking sheets (or 3 smaller ones) with baking parchment. Toast almonds in the oven, stirring occasionally, 6 to 8 minutes, or until tinged with brown. Set aside to cool. Reset oven to 300 degrees.
Grind cooled almonds and 1/2 cup powdered sugar in a food processor until very fine but not oily. Thoroughly stir remaining powdered sugar into almonds.
Combine granulated sugar and 3 tablespoons hot tap water in a small heavy saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring just to a boil, stirring. Cover pan and boil for 1 1/2 minutes to allow steam to wash sugar crystals from pan sides. Uncover and continue boiling, lifting pan and swirling contents occasionally but never stirrinq, about 1 minute longer until syrup thickens, bubbles vigorously and reaches firm ball stage (240 degrees on a candy thermometer). To test for doneness without a thermometer, remove pan from heat, drop a small amount of syrup in a cup of ice water and let stand 10 seconds; syrup should form a firm ball when squeezed between fingers. Set syrup aside.
Beat egg whites with mixer on medium speed until frothy. Add cream of tartar, raising mixer speed to high. Continue beating just to soft peaks; turn off mixer. Return syrup to burner and reheat just to simmering. With mixer on high speed, immediately pour a thin, steady stream of syrup down bowl side (avoid beaters or whip as syrup will stick) until all syrup is added. Add vanilla and almond extract. Continue beating until mixture cools to lukewarm.
Using a rubber spatula, fold almond mixture evenly into whites. Immediately drop mixture from small spoons into 1-inch kisses, spacing about 3/4 inch apart. (Alternatively, pipe mixture into 1-inch rounds using pastry bag fitted with a plain or open star 3/8 -inch diameter tip.) Place pans staggered on racks in center half of oven. Bake cookies for 19 to 22 minutes, reversing pans from front to back and switching racks about halfway through, until barely tinged and firm on top but still slightly soft inside. Let pans stand on racks until meringues are completely cooled. Peel from paper. Store airtight until assembled.
To prepare buttercream: Beat together butter, powdered sugar and preserves until light and fluffy. Spread with a knife (or pipe using pastry bag and tube) small mounds of buttercream over flat side of half the cookies. Top cookies with remaining meringues, pressing together lightly. Store cookies airtight and refrigerated for up to 24 hours; they will soften too much if left longer. (For longer storage, freeze, tightly wrapped, for up to 2 weeks; thaw just before serving.) Allow cookies to warm up slightly before serving.