Anise Drops are not quite the lazy cookie I hoped they’d be—but they’re worth the fuss

Illustration for article titled Anise Drops are not quite the lazy cookie I hoped they’d be—but they’re worth the fuss
Photo: Carina Finn

In retrospect, I got into baking Anise Drops for all the wrong reasons. I was looking for a low-maintenance cookie, something with a flavor reminiscent of the Springerle cookies, the anise-flavored embossed biscuits that I’ve been baking every year around Christmas since I met my husband. Springerle are one of the most high-maintenance holiday cookies out there. They take a minimum of two full days to make, and then they have to age in a tin for at least a week so that the flavor and texture can properly develop. I love Springerle, but I am not a patient person.

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When I stumbled upon a recipe for Anise Drops in the New World Encyclopedia of Cooking, and again in an early edition of Joy of Cooking (before they were cut from later editions), I thought I had found the answer to my holiday cookie woes. The recipes looked very simple, and while Anise Drops, like Springerle, do need to dry before baking, they don’t need to age. I envisioned a season of whipping up quick batches of Anise Drops while I waited for the Springerle to reach their peak, never having to suffer through a chilly morning coffee without an anise-flavored cookie to go with it. I was so wrong.

Anise Drops, or Anisplatzschin, as they are known in Germany, are much like macarons flavored with anise—except for some reason, no one will come out and say that. There are a few key differences between the French macaron shell and the German Anise Drop, but they are relatively minor. While macarons are made with only egg whites and almond flour, Anise Drops are made with whole eggs and white wheat flour. There are also some subtle differences in the method of making both of these cookies, but the results are more or less the same.

When done right, Anise Drops are delightful little cookies. They’re about the size of a quarter, chewy and tender with a crisp exterior and a mild anise flavor. They’re often described as being “self-frosting,” which is really just another way of saying that, like French macarons, they develop feet—little ruffles with a vertical rise at the bottom of the cookie, filled with delicate air bubbles—when mixed, dried, and baked properly. They’re addictive, especially when paired with coffee, tea, or hot cocoa for dipping.

They are also some of the finickiest cookies I have ever made. On the bright side, even when you mess them up, Anise Drops are still delicious. The very first time I made them, they didn’t self-frost, and they were gone in less than a day. The last time I made them, I realized that my oven had started running 20 degrees hotter than usual. I gave the entire overbaked batch to a friend, who devoured them all in less than 48 hours. The batches I’ve made that turned out perfectly were carefully rationed to last for two or three days, at most. All of which is to say, though they are tricky to make, even less than optimal results are still delicious.

The headnote to the recipe in Joy of Cooking gives an indication as to both why these cookies truly are seasonal and why they are so finicky. It reads, “These professional-looking, self-glazing cookies with the charming puffed top are best made in cool weather. They do not turn out well if the humidity is over 50%.” Anytime the weather is a key factor in the success or failure of a baked good (think macarons, croissants, chocolate confections), you know you’re in for a wild ride.

There is much conflicting information, both in old books and on the internet, about how to make these cookies. King Arthur Flour has one of the better recipes I’ve found. It eschews the old-timey insistence that the batter must be beaten for no less than 25 minutes. The comments section, however, is full of the kinds of tales that seem typical of the Anise Drop: the recipe worked perfectly once, then never again; or it didn’t work, and then magically it did.

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Some recipes say the cookies must rest for no more than eight hours; others claim that no fewer than 18-24 hours will suffice. Joy of Cooking makes no mention of resting time, while the New World Encyclopedia of Cooking calls for an overnight rest. I found, through much trial and error, a method that worked more or less consistently for me, assuming that the external conditions were right.

While almost every recipe I’ve seen indicates that the eggs should be whisked whole with the sugar, I found that I got the most reliable results by first whipping the egg whites to soft peaks, then adding to sugar to make a French meringue. I always do this by hand, because I think making meringue with a whisk builds character. Next, I whisk in the egg yolks, anise seeds, and anise extract (I use both, because I love the flavor, but using only the seeds will yield a milder cookie suitable even for the licorice-averse). Finally, I sift in the flour and baking powder before folding it into the thick, sticky batter.

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Because I like things neat, I pipe my Anise Drops on a silicone baking mat. I’ve found no difference at all between drying the cookies for three hours, eight hours, or overnight: as long as they are dry to the touch, they’ve worked for me. I typically leave them out to sit near an open window on a cold day and check them starting after three hours.

Quite possibly the most important factor in making proper Anise Drops is the temperature of the oven. I’ve baked these in an ancient, malfunctioning oven that simply cannot hold a consistent temperature and got delicious cookies with no feet. I’ve baked them in my own modern but too-hot oven and got ugly feet and a crispier texture. But when they’re baked at the right temperature (exactly 325 degrees Fahrenheit) for just enough time (some recipes say 6 minutes, others say 12: you have to use your judgement, as there is no universal bake time), the results are spectacular.

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Anise Drops

This recipe makes approximately 24 cookies and uses just one egg. It doubles and triples easily, but I like making these cookies in smaller batches in case something goes awry.

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  • 1 egg, separated
  • ¼ tsp. fine salt
  • ½ cup white sugar
  • ¼ tsp. anise extract
  • ½ tsp. lightly crushed anise seeds
  • ¾ cup all-purpose flour
  • ⅛ tsp. baking powder

In a medium or large mixing bowl, whisk the egg white and salt until foamy. Slowly add the sugar in four or five additions, whisking until soft peaks form. Add the egg yolk, anise extract, and anise seeds, and whisk until fully incorporated. The mixture should be pale yellow and very fluffy.

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Sift together the baking powder and flour, then sift the dry ingredients into the egg-sugar mixture.

Transfer the batter to a piping bag, and pipe quarter-sized rounds onto a sheet pan lined with parchment paper or a silicone mat. You can also use two teaspoons to drop the batter onto the baking sheet. Dry in a cool place (but not in the refrigerator) for at least three hours, or overnight.

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When the cookies are matte and dry to the touch, bake at 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Watch them closely—when they’re done, they should develop feet and have a creamy (but not golden) color on the bottom. Let cool on the pan for a minute or two before transferring to a wire rack to cool. These keep well in an airtight container or tin for about two weeks.

DISCUSSION

lordoftheducks
Lord of the Ducks

If you want the flavor in a less finicky cookie, try Anise Biscotti. I make them every year for the holidays. They are great plain, with a vanilla or cranberry glaze, or with a chocolate dip/drizzle. Just take your favorite basic biscotti recipe and add 1 part anise extract, 1 part anise seed (ground), and 1 part fennel seed (ground). This trio gives a nice balance of flavor.

For added festiveness, top with mukhwas (sugar coated fennel seeds, you can find them online or at your local Indian grocery); you will want to use white chocolate or a glaze to adhered them.

If you want to go with a lighter texture, take a basic lemon meltaway recipe and sub the lemon juice with 1 part anise extract to 2 parts water and sub the zest with anise seeds (ground). Glazed anise meltaways are extra festive and flavorful  when sprinkled with mukhwas.