What do cookies and cathedrals have in common? In Aachen, Germany, both are protected pieces of European heritage.
Aachen is a mid-sized metropolis in the westernmost prong of Germany best known as the seat of Charlemagne’s empire and the site of a UNESCO heritage cathedral that has witnessed the coronation of German kings going back to the 10th century. But perhaps equally famous – at least among food lovers – is the city’s signature confection, printen.
Aachener printen are spice cookies so hard that it’s said the bakers have a contract with the city’s dentists. Redolent of anise, cinnamon, cloves, coriander and other spices, a “printe” best reveals its Christmas-y punch when crunched between strong molars. Tiny crystals of sugar explode with each bite, an attribute that helped Aachener printen win European Union status as a protected commodity (see here on page 42) Just as “Champagne” can only come from the Champagne region of France, “printen” can only come from Aachen.
“Both the printen and the cathedral are a big attraction in Aachen,” city tourism executive Claire Pietsch says via email. “The best way is to visit the cathedral first and eat some delicious printen afterwards.”
Easy to do. Printen bakeries line the streets of Aachen the way Starbucks populate strip malls in the United States. On a recent tour of Printen Bakery Klein, one of the city’s most renowned bakers, a tree trunk of dough sat curing on a worktable, its jagged points sharp as stucco. Printen are made with three types of sugar – beet sugar, beet syrup, and “kandis,” a large-crystal sugar akin to rock candy.
Printen by definition contain fragrant seeds and spices, but each bakery jealously guards its particular formula. The bakers at Klein knead the dough by pounding it on the table, and then they let it rest for a week to intensify the flavors. Printen achieve their tooth-shattering texture because the sugars caramelize during baking, and because they contain no eggs, no fat, no milk and almost no water.
“It’s a health food,” says Andreas Klein, a fourth generation printen maker whose family recipe dates to 1912.
Klein actually is not far off. Printen were created at least in part to sustain pilgrims flocking to Aachen’s cathedral. Since 1349, the faithful have trekked from all over the world to see Aachen’s relics, which include Jesus’ baby diaper and the decapitation cloth of John the Baptist. (The pilgrimage continues to take place every seven years. The next one is slated for 2021.) Printen, often fashioned into the images of saints or soldiers, were durable foodstuff for these travelers. Even today, printen literally keep for years in a kitchen cupboard.
Printen likely descend from Gebildbrot, a Belgian pastry fashioned into images and designs. These arrived in Aachen with migrant metalsmiths in the 15th century, and Aachen’s bakers quickly set out to copy them. They created a soft, honey-sweetened dough and pressed it into elaborately carved wooden molds to create saints and other figures. This act of imprinting the dough — “prenten” in the local dialect – gave the cookies their name.
Napoleon is to blame (or thank) for today’s denture-defying printen. In 1806, the French emperor blockaded Great Britain, cutting off Aachen’s access to the cane sugar and honey that were key ingredients for the cookies. Bakers began substituting sugar and syrup from local beets, ingredients that stiffened the dough and made it impervious to the old wooden molds.
An enterprising cookie smith named Henry Lambertz developed the technique of rolling the dough over raised forms – a kind of reverse cookie cutter – resulting in the flat, slender cookie known today.
This sturdy biscuit also lent itself to efficient manufacturing and travel over long distances, spreading the reputation of printen. Henry Lambertz GmbH & Co., founded in 1688, is Aachen’s oldest and largest printen maker.
Today, printen come in many shapes, sizes and textures–everything from pencil-thin sticks to cutout men and women nearly a yard long, all neatly stacked in bakery windows throughout the city. Printen can be flat and rectangular or round as bonbons, covered in chocolate or encrusted with almonds or hazelnuts. Bakers have even given in to those who are hard of teething: soft printen are offered by many bakeries. (At home, locals sometimes soften the cookies by sealing them in a tin along with half an apple.)
Aachen’s bakers turn out more than 4,500 tons of printen every year, according to the city’s tourism service. Some go to pilgrims, some to visitors, many to the kitchens of locals. More than just a sweet to enjoy with tea, printen are also a key ingredient in “Rheinischer Sauerbraten,” the regional take on the classic vinegar-marinated beef.