Food & Drink

New Year’s Cakes: A Family History and a Recipe Adapted for Today

When I was a child, there was always a day I’d come home from school before the holidays and find my mother sitting at the kitchen table, bent over our wafer iron, wearing a shower cap. The sweet, intoxicating smell of anise would emanate from the kitchen, and I’d know immediately what she was baking: finkwarder neejohrskoken.

As I was growing up, there was a lot of baking going on in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and most of it involved me and, if he chose to partake, my younger brother. But this particular cookie recipe, our father’s favorite, my mother made mostly by herself. She would bake it twice; first to offer throughout Christmas, and again during the last days of December to serve after New Year’s Eve dinner (making sure there was enough for my father to share with colleagues the first day back at work).

Neejohrskoken, in our local northern German dialect, means “New Year’s cakes.” I always associated the recipe with my father, one of the rituals to celebrate his birthday, like the herring salad we’d have for dinner that night and that we children hated.

He was born on New Year’s Day in 1930. Less than 15 years later, in the fall of 1944, towards the end of Hitler’s insanely destructive war, with almost every German male fit for military service either dead, maimed, captured or fighting for their lives on the numerous fronts around Europe, the Volkssturm was decreed. This meant that every half-way physically able man up to 60 years of age was called up to defend the home country — as well as all teenage boys who had so far been considered too young to enter the Wehrmacht: those born in the years 1925 to 1929.

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  • Carolyn Hahn January 4, 2008 at 8:47 pm

    What an evocative essay, Agnes. My family did not go through nearly the difficulties your father did, but the essay struck home because I have just gotten done with a week of baking about twelve batches of cookies — one after the other — to give away (my husband actually begged me not to make any, and last year, I didn’t — but this year, I HAD TO).
    I gave them away to my neighbor, Gloria, to the people at my nearby Salvation Army and Holy Name thrift shops, to the staff at Oppenheimer butchers…to the cashiers at Gristedes, to my husband’s co-workers. At some point I did think Why Am I Doing This? But it reminds me of how my mother would make yeasty Christmas bread in the shape of wreaths and snowflakes for all the neighbors, for how my grandmother would send rum balls and peanut brittle from Albuquerque … it’s as if the spirit of my grandmother and mother were being channeled through my hands to my New York “family.”
    And funny how the Gristedes cashiers — like me — remembered they’d all left out cookies and milk for Santa (in my case, getting a note back from Santa — but in my mother’s handwriting — go figure!).

  • Wendy Brown LaHood December 31, 2007 at 2:19 pm

    Thank you for sharing a heartfelt example of how strongly traditions connect us to family members today and in our history. For those of us with few or no traditions, it is encouragement to begin our own. Best wishes for a joyful, healthy and peaceful New Year.