Zimtsterne are delicious cinnamon flavored nut cookies, cut and decorated into pretty stars. These cinnamon star cookies are a classic in Germany and easy to make at home with only a handful of ingredients.
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The Christmas cookie tradition is not one I particularly grew up with, since in the UK cookies (or biscuits as we'd call them) are generally lower on the list to Christmas cake or mince pies as a seasonal treat for guests. But I've happily added a few favorites over the years into our seasonal baking.
In Germany, Weihnachtsplätzchen are a long-standing tradition, though the term includes both cookies (as it translates) as well as Stollen which is another favorite. When I was a student in Germany I remember having a whole lesson just on cookies, and these, along with other classics like Vanillekipferl were one of them.
What are the origins of cinnamon star cookies?
The exact origins of these cookies is a little unclear, but the first written mention dates back to the 16th century. At this time, cinnamon was rare and expensive, and sugar and almonds were also expensive so they were very much only a treat enjoyed by the rich.
"Zimtsterne" translates as "cinnamon stars", which fits with the Christmas tradition, though these are also called "Erstersternen" ("first stars") and eaten by German Jews as part of the first meal after the Yom Kippur fast. They are often made as a six-pointed star, though you can use whichever shaped star cutter you have.
Core ingredients in Zimtsterne
The main ingredients in these star cookies are egg white, nuts and cinnamon. Typically, you use almonds though you can make them partly or fully with hazelnuts.While the main flavor is cinnamon, you can also add a little vanilla, lemon or orange zest.
Almonds and egg whites are the base for a few different cookies, like macarons and also Swiss Basler Brunsli, which also include chocolate. These are thicker and more dense than macarons, more like a sugar cookie in some ways, though naturally gluten free. Along with the cinnamon flavor, though, it's the topping that really sets them apart.
On first glance, you might think these have a layer of frosting on top, but in fact it's more of a layer of meringue. You add it before baking and them it dries and hardens a little during baking, but keeps the pale color due to the relatively low baking heat.
Should you use almond flour or almond meal?
It might seem like these should be the same thing, since they are both ground almonds, but they are in fact very slightly different. Almond meal is a bit coarser and made from almonds with their skin on. It also retains more of the oil. Almond flour, on the other hand, is finer and made from blanched almonds.
In many traditional recipes, they are very specific that you should only use almond meal for these. The meal gives them a darker color and coarser texture, and this is what many associate with these cookies. You also often find them made a bit thicker than I have here (which fits the coarser texture).
While it may be less traditional, these definitely work just as well with almond flour, though. I also find almond flour a lot easier to find in the store. The end cookies are a little smoother and paler, but certainly just as tasty as made with almond meal.
Cookie making tips
These cookies are relatively simple, with just a few ingredients, but these tips should help them be even easier:
- Use the same meringue for the cookies and the topping. Some make the topping separately, but it's just as easy to scoop some out before you add the nuts and cinnamon. This especially helps if you are only making a smaller batch.
- Chill the dough before rolling. This dough can be sticky so chilling helps to firm it up a little before you work with it.
- Roll the dough on waxed paper or a silicone mat, dusted with sugar. Again, these help with the slightly sticky dough. You can always lift the mat/paper if they get stuck, unlike a work surface. It can also be helpful to cover the top with wax or parchment paper as well (I have tried both with and without, and find it helpful for initial rolling, less needed later).
- Place cookies on prepared baking sheet before adding the topping. This saves you having to move them and potentially having the topping drip off.
- Use a cocktail stick, teaspoon or small brush to help spread the topping. Think of it as artwork! You start with a little blob in the middle and spread it, using whichever tool you find most helpful.
As mentioned, you'll often find these cookies a bit thicker than I have made here, but it is really up to you how thick or thin you make them. One thing you don't want to skip, though, is the meringue topping.
The topping might seem a little fiddly to add, but you soon get in the flow of it. And the end result is worth it, both in appearance and texture.
Once you have coated all of the cookies, bake them in a relatively low oven until the top looks dry but the meringue is still white. The cookies may still be a little soft, but they will firm up a little more as they cool.
These cinnamon star cookies have a delicious gently spiced flavor and a nicely chewy texture. They're naturally gluten free, pretty and satisfyingly sweet. It's easy to see why Zimtsterne are a classic during the festive period, though really, you might want to enjoy them any excuse you can.
Try these other festive cookies:
- Cucidati (Italian fig-filled cookies, topped with a lemon glaze and sprinkles)
- Brunkager (Danish spice cookies)
- Kolachy cookies (an easy cookie with jam filling)
- And while not strictly festive, strawberry meringue cookies make another great gluten free choice.
- Plus get more snack recipes, both sweet and savory, and Holiday ideas in the archives.
Tools to make these cookies
Zimtsterne - cinnamon star cookies
- 2 egg whites
- 1 ¼ cups confectioner's sugar 138g icing sugar
- 2 cups almond meal 200g (can use some/all hazelnut meal or almond flour but will be smoother - see above)
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon or 1 ½tsp for slightly stronger flavor
- 1 pinch salt
- Beat the egg whites for a few minutes until they reach soft peak consistency.
- Add the confectioner's sugar and continue to beat/whisk until the mixture is well combined and glossy. Remove ¼ cup (4 tbsp) of the mixture and set aside for the topping.
- Add the almond meal/flour, cinnamon and salt and mix everything together so that it is well combined. Bring the dough together, wrap it and refrigerate around 30 minutes to an hour.
- Preheat the oven to 300F/150C and prepare one or two baking sheets with parchment or silicone baking mats.
- Place a silicone baking mat on a work surface or cut a piece of waxed paper to line an area. Sprinkle the mat/paper with a little confectioner's sugar then place the chilled dough on top, slightly flattened.
- You can either cover the dough with a piece of waxed/parchment paper or just dust the rolling pin with additional sugar. Roll out the dough to roughly ⅓ to 0.4in (¾ - 1cm) thick. Use a star-shaped cutter to cut out cookies and carefully transfer them to the prepared baking sheets. To help stop the cutter sticking, try dipping the cutter in confectioner's sugar now and then, and you may need to wash it in warm water now and then as well.
- Once you have cut cookies form the dough, bring back extra dough into a ball and roll out again to cut additional cookies.
- Use a teaspoon to place a little of the reserved meringue topping in the middle of one of the cookies and either use the back of the spoon, a cocktail stick or a small brush to help spread the topping to the edges of the cookie, forming a thin layer. Try to avoid it dripping down the side. Repeat with the rest of the cookies.
- Bake the cookies for approximately 12 - 15 minutes until the top of the cookie looks dry but the meringue topping is still white rather than becoming yellow/brown. Remove the cookies from the oven and allow to cool completely (they may be slightly soft initially).
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These Zimtsterne (German cinnamon stars) were first shared on Curious Cuisiniere where I am a contributor.