Cinnamon stars or Zimtsterne are German cookies that are traditionally made around Christmas time. A friend gave them to me as a gift last Christmas and I wanted to learn how to make them.
These festive cookies are made from an almond-cinnamon dough that's rolled and cut into star shapes, and then covered with a meringue coating before baking. The high concentration of cinnamon makes them fragrant. The first known recipe for Zimtsterne dates to the 1500s, when cinnamon was rare and expensive and saved for special occasions. As the name suggests, they are the star of many German Christmas cookie plates (or Bunter Teller).
There are different schools of thought on how to bake Zimtsterne so that the cookies stay soft and chewy and the meringue is as white as possible. Traditionally, the dough is left out to dry at room temperature for up to 24 hours but this recipe reduces the time to 1 hour — in all honesty I didn’t have the counterspace to dry out for an entire day before baking.
Although the cookies are composed of simple ingredients, they require considerable elbow grease and time. Only make these if you like a challenge and have time to spend the day in the kitchen! The dough is fussy and spreading the top coating on each cookie requires precision. It will take several hours to make, chill, roll, and cut the dough; knead the scraps back together, chill, roll and cut it; place the cookies on a baking sheet; cover their tops with the egg-sugar mixture; let the cookies dry out; and finally, bake them.
Here are some step-by-step instructions in case you decide to take on the challenge and make Zimtsterne this Christmas:
Measure out the five ingredients — egg whites, salt, confectioners’ sugar, almond meal and cinnamon. (No added fat!) This will ensure a smoother and faster process.
In a clean, dry bowl, beat the egg whites and salt until soft peaks. Gradually add the sugar, one tablespoon at a time, and whip until firm peaks. The mixture will be glossy and dense given the high concentration of sugar. For more guidance on this step, check out my page on whipping egg whites.
Reserve 3 heaping tablespoons of the beaten egg white-sugar mixture in a small bowl to use for the topping later on. Set aside.
Combine the cinnamon and a minimum amount of ground almonds together and then gently fold them into the remaining egg white-sugar mixture in the mixing bowl.
Take a bit of dough between your index finger and thumb. If it sticks to your fingers considerably, fold more ground almonds into the egg white mixture until the dough is slightly sticky and firm. Keep in mind that you don’t want to add too much additional ground almonds or the dough will be too dry and brittle. Pay attention to the “stickiness” and don’t add more almonds if the dough is workable and doesn’t stick between your fingers anymore. Depending on the precise size of your egg whites and the grind of your almonds, you may need the full amount of almonds. [I needed 390 grams to reach the right consistency.]
Form the dough into a block, wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Take the refrigerated dough and place it between two sheets of parchment. Roll out the dough to about 6mm/¼in thickness (note: These cookies are meant to be thick. I rolled out my dough a bit too thin). Refrigerate (or even freeze) the rolled dough for 30 minutes (note: I placed the dough on a cutting board to make sure that it remains flat while chilling in the refrigerator). Since the dough is slightly sticky, chilling it makes it easier to work with.
Peel off the top sheet of parchment and use a 5cm/2in star-shaped cutter to cut out as many cookies as possible. Dip the cookie cutter into confectioners' sugar frequently to prevent the dough from sticking to it.
Note: A six-pointed star is the traditional Zimtsterne shape, but you can use a five-or more pointed cutter. I waited until it was too late to buy a star-shaped cookie cutter and the only one available was made of plastic and 8-pointed; both the plastic and the many points made it difficult to cut the cookies. For those bakers who like specialty tools, there are special Zimtsterne cookie cutters that release the dough after you have cut it.
You may need to periodically refrigerate or freeze the dough to make it easier to cut as it is difficult to work with if the dough is at room temperature. The dough is really sticky.
Line 2–3 large baking sheets with parchment paper. You will make about 75 cookies, depending on how thin you roll the dough and the cookie cutter you use. Carefully place the cookies on the prepared baking sheets. They are sticky and delicate so use an offset spatula as an aid to move the cookies. They will not spread so you can place them close together.
Knead the scraps back into a ball, chill it, roll it out between two sheets of parchment, and cut more stars. You can repeat this several times until the dough is completely used up.
Using the reserved egg white-sugar mixture (or meringue), which was set aside earlier in the process, spread a small amount onto the top of each cookie with a pastry brush, spoon and/or toothpick, taking care to drag the topping out to each point of the star. You may need to stir in a few drops of water to make the meringue easier to spread. This step is time consuming — taking an hour or more — so be prepared.
While you are covering the cookies with meringue, leave them out on the counter to dry. After you have finished topping the cookies, leave them out to dry for an hour at room temperature.
One baking sheet at a time, place the cookies in the pre-heated oven and bake them for about 10 minutes or until the meringue toping is set but still snowy white. Don’t overbake the cookies or they will be too hard. As the cookies cool, they will firm up.
Allow the cookies to cool fully on the baking sheet before storing in a sealed container for up to 1 week. These cookies also make great homemade gifts. It is traditional in Germany to present beautifully packaged gifts of homemade cookies to colleagues, friends and family.
Please see the recipe below for a summary of the detailed instructions.