Today, the man in front of me at the checkout in the Coop had about seven packages of Mailänderli dough, the stuff you can roll out and bake.
The cashier smiled at him, "it's really the best Christmas cookie, gäu?"
I think most of German-speaking Switzerland would agree.
There is nothing that tastes more like Christmas to me than my mum's buttery, lemony Mailänderlis. She would carefully stack the little yellow Christmas trees, bells, hearts, and stars—the best because they were the biggest—between wax paper, in golden tins. Hers were always the best, that perfect mix of lemon and butter, and really crisp and golden. Perfect flat edges. Try as I might, mine are never quite as perfect as hers.
According to the Kulinarische Erbe, the origin of the cookie is vague. The name suggests that they come from Milan (Mailand in German), but there is no direct evidence, only a slightly similar buttery Milanese cookie (though made with almonds and candied fruit). The first mention is a recipe in the late 1700s, and apparently it was customary to serve them with mulled wine at New Year's parties in Basel in the 19th century.
Today, they are absolutely the standard Swiss Christmas cookie made by every bakery and every family. The recipes are generally similar, equal parts butter and sugar and double the flour, with lemon and lots of egg yolks. (But none are as good as my mum's.)
250 g butter, soft
250 g sugar
4 egg yolks, room temperature
500 g flour
zest from one lemon
2 egg yolks
2 tbsp sugar
Beat the butter and sugar until the colour changes to a very pale yellow and it is light and fluffy.
Add the lemon zest.
Add the egg yolks one at a time, beating well.
Add the flour and mix well until you have a uniform mass of dough. Prepare three pieces of plastic wrap, then divide the dough evenly between them. Press the dough into discs, wrap securely, and let cool in fridge for at least an hour and up to a day.
When you are ready to roll:
Preheat oven to 180 C / 350 F / gas mark 4
Roll out to about 1 cm thick, then cut with cookie cutters. Place on tray.
Whist together the egg yolks and sugar. Brush an even, but relatively thick layer on the cookies. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, depending on your preference.
Use very soft butter, and try to beat it until it is really light and fluffy.
When zesting the lemon, be sure to only get the yellow part, the white pith is very bitter.
If you aren't going to use the dough within a day, just pop it in the freezer and defrost overnight when you're ready to use it.
Try to keep the dough cool at all times and don't work it too much with your hands.
As for baking, I like mine a bit on the darker, crispier side, so I leave them in until their edges are a bit brown.
Use up your extra egg whites with this recipe for Brunsli Bears.