An Austrian-Flavoured Christmas

My Big Cookbook

I am proud of my family’s international heritage, which has enriched us more than words can say. My mother-in-law Erika is an Austrian who has lived most of her life in London, and she has contributed the most charming and wonderful things to our extended family. There’s her lovely accent, a pretty, elegant tongue that is a blend of Austrian and the beautifully-enunciated English that she has spoken for seventy years. There’s her open, smiling countenance and great generosity that I somehow associate with being Austrian. Above all there’s the cosy and inviting home she created for her family, and her love of wonderful baking.

When my husband Marcel was growing up, Erika made all kinds of tempting Austrian delicacies (with apologies for spelling errors): Nusstorte, Kugelhupf, Moor in Hempf, Sachertorte, Mohnstrudel, Apfelstrudel, Stollen – and Vanillekipferln at Christmas. The latter are little crescents made of ground almonds and flour, flavoured with vanilla and dredged in vanilla sugar. When I first knew Erika, she made these melt-in-the-mouth almond goodies from mid-December onwards. My family and I have travelled over to see her in London every New Year’s since Marcel and I met over twenty years ago, and every New Year’s I have consistently over-indulged, thanks to her heartfelt hospitality. Now dear Erika has reached her tenth decade: the baking baton has been passed to her daughters, nieces and granddaughters, and indeed son. Marcel occasionally likes to bake the Austrian specialities of his youth, and I don’t think there are many things from the above list that haven’t been presented to my family around Christmas time.

This year, our younger daughter Olivia decided to make Vanillekipferln. Her dad fetched the Austrian cookbook with the recipe in it, in German, that his mother used to own, and they prepared the cookies together. Liv has been teaching herself German through Duolingo and she finds herself drawn to the language. (Mother-in-law Erika speaks a type of Austrian German that is no longer in use in Austria: even the old people, her niece Ulli tells me, speak a much more modern German. So Erika is one of the only people alive still speaking that antiquated Austrian German, because her mother tongue was frozen in 1949 when she came to England.) I found it so charming to hear Marcel and Liv calling out ingredients and methods to one another in German: to me it sounds so exotic, since I don’t speak a word. They worked away together, but soon Liv was flagging, deciding to leave much of the dough in the fridge for the next day.

The extended Austrian clan – aunties, nieces, daughters-in-law, granddaughters (and my husband) – are in a WhatsApp group. Among other nice things, we share photos of our Vanillekipferln efforts around this time of year. These photos are carefully curated to look as pretty as possible. Liv posted a lovely pic of hers with some nice festive candles in the background. Within ten minutes in came a shot from one of the relatives, of a pretty basket of Vanillekipferln with a Christmas tree in the foreground. Then a meme, clearly an Austrian in-joke, of a tray of Vanillekipferln ready for the oven, the last one absolutely huge, with the caption “when you run out of patience”. Finally, from one of the British contingent, a photo of some ginger cupcakes, with a promise of Vanillekipferln to come the following day (I have yet to see them). I had a strong urge to paint the giant Austrian cookbook, and thought the Vanillekipferln would look nice too.

I tried to capture the aged look of the cookbook, and I’m quite pleased with how the stain on the water-damaged cover came out: I am currently practicing timing techniques with watercolour in anticipation of my workshop in the Algarve in April (you can still avail of the Early Bird discount until 31st Dec).

If you like homemade cookies, almond and vanilla, and you find yourself with time on your hands over the next few days, then I highly recommend you make Vanillekipferln.

Season’s greetings to all!

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