A centuries-old cookie gets better with age

From the lovely old west Prussian city of Thorn, now part of Poland, comes a special Christmas cookie, Thorner Katharinchen. Famous throughout Europe, this old, traditional cookie is quickly recognized for its spicy flavor, its unique tri-scalloped shape, and its name, ''Katherine's Cake.''

Proud Thorners boast not only of the Katharinchen, but also of their delicious honey cookies, or ebkuchenm; of almond cookies called Mandelkuchenm; and of their many varieties of delicate Pfefferkuchenm, or spice cookies with tantalizing aromas of cardamom, cinnamon, and nutmeg.

Surrounded by forests and meadows of heather outside the city wall, Thorn became a likely place for a honey cake industry to grow and flourish.

City records list a beekeeper operating as early as 1491, and in 1566 the Office of Forestry reported the sale of wax and honey was twice as high as the sale of lumber.

The Thorn cookies are all generously laced with honey and spices. Pfefferm (pepper) was then a collective term used by shopkeepers and merchants for both pepper and foreign spices. Honey, a basic ingredient in all the cakes, was the only sweetener used for holiday baking until about 400 years ago.

Special Katharinchen cutters may be purchased in Germany. In the United States, they are available from tinsmith Eugene Valasek, 4518 17th Street, Canton, Ohio 44708. He numbers, dates, and signs his work.

More simply, Katharinchen dough may be spread one-quarter-inch thick in jelly roll pans, cut in rectangles, and decorated with almond halves. Katharinchen Cookies 1 cup honey 1/2 cup sugar 3 tablespoons butter or margarine 1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg 3/4 teaspoon cardamom Few drops oil of anise, optional 1/4 teaspoon baking soda 3 tablespoons hot water 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar 1 egg, beaten 1/2 cup ground almonds 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

In saucepan, combine honey, sugar, and butter over low heat until honey melts and sugar dissolves. Cool to lukewarm. Add spices and stir well.

Dissolve soda in water. Add cream of tartar and stir into honey. Beat in egg. Add ground almonds; mix well. Gradually add sifted flour and stir thoroughly. If necessary, place dough on floured surface and knead with hands until smooth. Wrap dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight or several days.

On floured board, roll small amounts of chilled dough to 3/16-inch thickness. Cut with Katharinchen cutter or cut in 2-by-3-inch rectangles. Katharinchen cutters are rectangular with three scallops on each side and measure 2 1/4 by 2 3/4 inches. Place on greased baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees F. 8 to 10 minutes. Watch closely. Cool on rack and store in airtight container.

Cookies may be glazed with a thin lemon icing or decorated with blanched almond halves. Some older Katharinchen recipes use part rye flour in the dough. Katharinchen, like most honey cookies, improve with age.

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