By Tom Havran
“’Bina schleep, I get it for you.”
This phrase, whispered in a thick German accent, comes from a tale of intrigue involving the liberation of a secret holiday cookie recipe – one that’s better spiced than a traditional gingerbread cookie, better sweetened than a typical sugar cookie and more pleasantly buttery than an ordinary shortbread cookie. I contend that the flavor of this cookie and the means and method of its creation are worthy of state-level secrets. War could be waged for this cookie. A harrowing midnight parachute drop behind enemy lines and break-in to Party Headquarters would be justified, (and as you’ll see essentially was undertaken) for the recovery of the recipe.
The cookie has come to be called a “Gabina” in my family, after the German housekeeper who first brought them to my mother Leota’s childhood home in Norway, Iowa, in the 1940s. But it was Gabina’s housegirl, Mary, who was the real heroine in the story; it’s she who risked Gabina’s wrath to recover the recipe one cold, winter night and deliver it to my mom.
My mother’s great grandfather, Karl Schulte, immigrated to Iowa in 1861 and built a family homestead that, to this day, is a bit of a Teutonic microcosm: a mix of steep hills, deep forest and fertile bottom lands complete with the original vineyard that still yields a, shall we call it, “robust” family wine. The Schultes came from a hardcore, pre-Reformation Catholic tradition, which they brought to bear in their involvement in the creation of St. Michael’s church and rectory. The whole combined scene of pastoral farm and small-village parish was a virtual doppelganger for what they left behind in Rosenbeck Westphalia, Germany.
When my mom was growing up in this setting, the priest at St. Michael’s was Father Krull, who brought his sister Gabina and their poor, work-worn housegirl Mary from Sustrum, Germany to live in the rectory. The Krulls were sturdy, large-boned folk (just like the Schultes). Gabina was an intimidating character judging from Mom’s recent description of her: “She was real ‘Germany’-looking, with a long nose, braids that wrapped around her head and big teeth. When she swallowed, her thick neck would move like she had a terrible sore throat or was choking on a bone.” Definitely not someone you’d want to steal a cookie recipe from.
Naturally, the Krulls got along splendidly with the Schultes and would come out to the farm every Friday for an extended evening of dinner, highballs and heated games of euchre around the black walnut dining table. (If you haven’t played euchre with fiery-tempered Germans after good food and drink, you haven’t played cards…but I caution you, it’s not an exercise for the timid. I’ve seen games end in tears with friends and even family falling-out.)
Gabina brought her famous braune platzchen (brown cookies) to one of these Friday gatherings. My mom, being the baker of the family wanted to decipher the mystery as soon as she bit her famously insatiable sweet tooth into one of the delicate, buttery, crumbly, toasty-brown, fragrant cookies. But the proud and obstinate Gabina would have none of it, keeping the recipe as close to her vest as a coveted trump hand containing a guarded left bauer. Perhaps it was Mom’s strategic chops gleaned from said euchre-playing that helped her finagle poor, overlooked Mary into a bit of late night culinary espionage. That, or a yearning for justice on Mary’s part due to her plight of drudgerous toil. Either way, Mary promised my mom, “’Bina schleep, I get it for you.”
I imagine Mary waiting for the rest of the household to retire, then defiantly and courageously creeping into the rectory’s dark kitchen to retrieve the precious recipe, the sound of an old clock chiming, the Krull’s snoring away and snow-sleet clicking against the black window panes.
Mary and Mom’s bold collaboration brightens my Christmases today. I am grateful to them both but especially bless the memory of Mary, who couldn’t have imagined me being touched by her gift all these years later. My most anticipated and cherished holiday moment is receiving a tin of these perfectly rendered treats each year with a handwritten tag taped to the lid: “To: Tom, From: Mom.”
Gabina’s Brown Spice Cookies
Gabina’s recipe is surprisingly simple, and is actually a version of the popular German spekulatius holiday cookie that is traditionally pressed into figured molds and baked for the Feast of St. Nicholas on December 6.
- 2 ½ cups flour
- 1 1/3 cups sugar
- ¾ cup unsalted butter at room temperature
- 2 large eggs
- 2 tablespoons honey
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ground cloves
- In a large bowl, cream together butter and sugar.
- One at a time, mix 2 eggs and honey into butter and sugar.
- In a separate bowl, sift together dry ingredients.
- Mix dry ingredients in to wet until dough forms.
- Shape into a disk, wrap in plastic and place in refrigerator for at least 2 hours, (overnight is better) to allow spices to permeate the dough.
- Before baking, remove dough from the refrigerator and rest at room temperature, approximately 20 minutes.
- On a floured surface, roll out to 1/8 inch thickness and use cookie cutters to cut out cookies.
- Bake at 350 degrees on a greased cookie sheet for 10 to 12 minutes, or until cookies are light brown.
- Substitute a cup of almond flour for one of the cups of regular flour and press slivered almonds into the cookies prior to baking.
- Mix up the spices to vary the flavor. Consider allspice, cardamom, nutmeg, mace and ginger, or even a pre-blended mix such as Frontier’s pumpkin pie spice. Just keep the measurement to 2 ½ teaspoons total.
- Gabina would make these into “gingerbread man” shapes and frugally snip a single raisin into little bits to form the eyes and buttons.
- Mom sometimes sprinkles them with cinnamon and sugar or frosts them with spiced royal icing.
- Perfect with a pot of tea on a snowy day!
For more holiday recipes and tips, visit http://www.frontiercoop.com/holidays/.