Letha Misener isn’t your ordinary baking grandma — out of her baking rises a piece of history.
Misener, 55, Rosebud, bakes German springerle cookies, scrumptious treats embossed with elaborate designs.
These are cookies made from replicas of hand-carved molds that date back to the 15th century. The carvers made molds to mark historical events, such as a king’s coronation or a war. They could also tell a story, such as the story of Daniel and the lion’s den, the Passover story, or St. Martin and the beggar.
“They didn’t have any books then so they told stories with cookies,” Misener said. “Some people even paid the carver to do a family crest.”
The craftsmen were predominately carving the molds from the 1400s to the 1800s, unknowingly carving more than 400 years of history, Misener said.
Original molds were made of wood and were passed down from generation to generation.
The size of the molds vary from several inches to several feet in length. Misener has two molds on her kitchen wall of a man and a woman that stand about three feet tall.
“We go to the bakery and get a huge cake for a special occasion,” she said. “They would go to the bakery and get a huge cookie for a special occasion.”
Misener also buys replicas of early molds that are made in the United States and Switzerland.
The earliest springerle cookies were made with anise, a licorice flavored herb. Then in the late 1300s, around the time of the Crusades, cookies were made with flavorings such as Mediterranean orange and rosewater in addition to the traditional anise flavor.
“They could grow anise and roses and the oranges grew near the Mediterranean,” she said. “The anise dates back to the time of Christ. The Romans used to let you pay taxes with anise seed and oil.”
Misener, whose family is German, was looking for something to do that would reflect her German heritage and supplement her income.
“My grandma was part of an extension club, which is basically a club for farm women,” she said. “They would meet once a month and sometimes have a guest there who would speak on upholstery, furniture, planting, sewing or something like that. Those ladies made the springerle cookies.”
Misener said her family didn’t make the cookies because her father didn’t like anise. However, her aunt found some of the molds and gave them to her and she started baking the cookies and selling them.
Today, Misener sells them at local festivals and even goes as far as Jefferson City with them. She also teaches cookie classes in Hermann.
In 2001 her son and some of her church members helped her install a bakery, complete with an industrial mixer and commercial oven, in her basement.
“I didn’t want to be selling stuff and not doing it right so I found out what the food rules were and we built a kitchen,” she said.
Misener has invented some of her own flavorful recipes such as mint chocolate and a chocolate raspberry cookie that earned her a first place in a chocolate festival in Hermann last year.
“I was pretty proud of that,” she said.
The cookies are a meringue base, she said, using lots of eggs and not much butter.
“You whip the eggs, fold in the sugar, add flavor and the leavening,” she said.
The early cookies in Europe were made with hartshorn, or deer antler, which was used as a leavening agent, much like baker’s ammonia.
“People ask me why I don’t use deer antlers,” she said. “I do this in my spare time and I’m not going to chase a deer. Besides, (the Europeans) used a different kind of deer.”
Once the dough is mixed, it is rolled out then pressed onto a mold. Misener uses a pizza cutter to cut the shapes from the molds. Then she said the dough has to set overnight or the designs will fade.
Historically, Misener said baking was an all-day affair.
“In the morning they would put wood into the cavity of a stone oven,” she said. “Then they would light it and the wood would heat the stone.”
When the wood was burnt to embers, people would rake it out of the oven, which would have heated to about 450 degrees, Misener said.
“They would start with a very hot oven and do two bakings of bread,” she said. “That’s where you got crusty outside loaves.”
When the bread was done, the oven would have cooled some to about 350 degrees.
“Then they would make fruitcakes and things like that,” she said.
After the oven cooled down some more, to about 250 degrees, then, Misener said, the springerle cookies were made, along with crackers or hard tack.
“They spent the whole day baking so at the end of the day it was nice because they could just pull the cookie dough off the shelf and put it in the oven,” she said.
Misener uses a pizza oven to bake her cookies, but, like her ancestors, she sometimes makes it an all-day affair.
“I go downstairs, listen to music or a book on tape and bake,” she said.
Misener will bake cookies to order for weddings, birthdays or any special occasion.
For more information or to reserve a spot in one of her classes, people may call 573-764-4121, or 573-205-2600.
Her next class is scheduled for April 13 in Hermann and will feature the raspberry chocolate recipe. She is also planning a mother-daughter cookie class May 4 that will feature the rosewater flavor. If a mother registers, the daughter can come at half-price.