A traditional German Christmas treat, Heidesand are delicious shortbread cookies that are made with browned butter. A personal favorite, we made these every Christmas growing up along with several other German holiday classics, a few of which I’ll be posting, so stay tuned!
Pronounced “hi-deh-sund”, it’s an age-old classic German cookie, mostly eaten during the holiday season. Heidesand translates as “heath sand” and has its origins in the Lüneburger Heide, a beautiful heathland area in northern Germany that my family and I always loved visiting. The terrain is sandy (the cookies’ namesake) and slightly hilly. In season it is covered in gorgeous purple heather. Most of it is a nature reserve and it is a popular north German tourist site.
Indigenous to the area are the famous Heidschnucke, a north German breed of moorland sheep with big rounded horns. I always got a kick out of saying the name as a kid. “Hyde-shnook-eh”.
On a side note, the Lüneburger Heide is also a famous historic cultural landscape. The land has been cultivated since 3000 BC and there are over a thousand Megalithic sites from the New Stone Age and early Bronze Age. Below are just a few examples. From left to right: Hannibal’s Grave, Sieben Steinhäuser (“Seven Stone Houses” – a cluster of ancient graves), and a stone grave interior.
And so from this beautiful region of Germany we have Heidesand, a “sandy” shortbread cookie made with browned butter and enjoyed all over Germany during the Christmas season.
I love Heidsand. They’re simple in preparation and appearance but have a wonderful flavor and texture. Contemporary variations of Heidesand include the addition of candied ginger, orange, or rosemary.
Let’s get started!
First let’s brown the butter. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat.
Whisk the butter frequently as it begins to simmer.
The butter will begin to foam and the foam will start to subside. Continue whisking. It’s very easy for browned butter to become burnt very quickly, so keep an eye on it. Browned specks will begin to form on the bottom of the pan, emitting a lovely nutty aroma.
You want browned butter that is rich in color for the full flavor benefit. As soon as it becomes a rich brown, remove it from the heat to prevent it from burning. Let the browned butter cool completely.
Once cooled, add the browned butter to a mixing bowl and beat until frothy.
Add the sugar, milk and vanilla extract and beat until combined.
In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and salt.
Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture and beat until the mixture resembles coarse sand.
The mixture will be very dry.
Use your hands to form the crumbs into a mass of dough.
The dough will be very dry and crumbly and that’s how it should be. It will just barely stick together, some parts of it breaking off.
Transfer the door to a clean work surface and squish the dough together to form two logs about 1 inch in diameter. Again, the dough is dry and will take some squishing and re-squishing to get it to stay together. Don’t worry about that, once it’s chilled it will stay together.
Wrap the logs up in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
Cut the chilled dough into 1/4 inch rounds.
Traditionally the cookies are often rolled in Hagelzucker (in English, pearl sugar), very coarse and opaque chunks of sugar that don’t melt under baking temperatures. They add a nice decorative touch. I couldn’t find my stash while I was making these so had to make due with regular sugar.
Guess what I finally found once the cookies were already in the oven? Go figure. Below is the Hagelzucker. It’s pretty difficult to find in stores in the USA, but you can purchase pearl sugar online.
You can visualize how pretty the cookies would with their edges laced in these sugar crystals.
Time to bake them. In an oven preheated to 350 degrees F, bake them for about 15 minutes, rotating the pan halfways through to ensure even baking, until the edges are just barely starting to turn golden.
Let the cookies sit for a couple of minutes on the baking sheet before transferring them to a wire rack to cool completely.
Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat, whisking frequently as the butter comes to a simmer. Browned specks will appear at the bottom of the pan. Whisk constantly until the the butter reaches a rich brown color. Note: The butter will burn very quickly at this stage so be careful. Once the butter is a rich brown at the bottom of the pan, remove from heat and let cool completely.
Once cooled, pour the butter in a large mixing bowl and beat until frothy. Add the sugar, milk and vanilla extract and beat until combined.
In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and salt. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture and beat until the mixture resembles coarse sand.
Use your hands to form the mixture into a mass. The dough will be very dry and brittle. Turn the dough out onto a clean work surface and squish the dough to form two logs about 1-inch in diameter. The dough will be crumbly, keep working at it to form the logs (see pictures in this post for reference). Wrap them in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Slice the chilled dough into 1/4 inch thick rounds. Roll the edges of each cookie in pearl sugar and place on a lined cookie sheet. Bake for about 15 minutes, turning the cookie sheet around halfway into it to ensure even baking. Bake until the edges of the cookies are just barely beginning to turn golden. Let the cookies sit on the cookie sheet for a couple of minutes before transferring them to a wire rack to cool completely. Store in an airtight container.
All images of the Lüneburger Heide courtesy Wikipedia