Cinnamon stars or Zimtsterne are German cookies that are traditionally made around Christmas time. They 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.
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 to dry out at room temperature for up to 24 hours but this recipe reduces the time to 1 hour — in all honesty I didn’t have counterspace to dry them for an entire day before baking.
Although these festive 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.
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.
Reserve 3 heaping tablespoons of the beaten egg white-sugar mixture (or meringue) in a small bowl to cover the cookies. Set aside until you reach step 13.
Combine the cinnamon and a minimum amount of ground almonds together and then gently fold them into the remaining (larger amount of) egg whites 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 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 long cutting board to make sure that it remained 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 from the chilled dough 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 Zimtsternecookie cuttersthat release the dough after you have stamped it.]
Periodically refrigerate or freeze the dough to make it easier to cut as it is difficult to work with the dough if it is at room temperature.
Line 2-3 baking sheets with parchment paper.
Carefully place the cookies on your parchment-lined baking sheets. They are sticky and delicate so use an offset spatula as an aid to move the cookies, if needed. The cookies will not spread when baked, so you can place them close together.
Knead the dough scraps into a ball, chill, roll it out between two pieces 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) from step 3, spread a small amount on the top of each cookie with a pastry brush, spoon and/or toothpick, taking care to drag the meringue out to the points 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.
Heat the oven to 150C (300F).
One baking sheet at a time, bake the cookies for about 10 minutes or until the meringue topping 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 sheets before storing in a sealed container for up to 1 week. These cookies make great homemade gifts.