This year, our cookie is going to be Springerles. You may remember last year’s cookie, the Pfeffernüsse, was a good, all around digestive tonic (assuming they are made in a traditional manner - with LOTS of spices, and not so much sugar). This year’s Springerles are a little different, as they use a very narrow range of spices and have a very distinctive flavor profile. Like many traditional German cookies, Springerles are an “aged” cookie, meaning they develop character over time (several days to several weeks), in which they improve in flavor and texture. But, the real signature of the Springerle is its pronounced anise flavor. This can be a little strong for some people. To be fair, Springerles have what I would call an “adult” taste. They are intense, complex, and should not be overly sweet. The Springerle gets its flavor both from anise seeds and anise oil, and it’s the anise that gives it its medicinal qualities.
If you want to skip the theory, you can jump down to the recipe below.
Anise can be said to broadly work on the mucosal organs of the digestive system, meaning of course the stomach and intestines. However, to really understand its scope, we have to broaden our understanding of the GI system to also include the lungs, for indeed, it is the lungs which aid peristalsis through diaphragmatic action, and it is the lungs (being also a mucus membrane), which often fill with mucus as a result of intestinal irritation. It is with this in mind that we can understand how anise’s major constituents, (trans-anetole, estragole, γ-hymachalen, para-anisaldehyde and methyl cavicol) exert their effect on the various organs and processes of the body.
In traditional European herbalism (including medieval European, Persian, and Greek), anise has been described as having a carminative, analgesic, anticonvulsant and interestingly, galactagogic effect. What this means essentially is that it relieves gas, relieves pain, relieves convulsions, relaxes muscles, and may stimulate breastmilk production. Chinese medicine doesn’t tend to use true anise, as it was originally from the middle east and its range extended only to southwestern Asia. Rather, it uses Star Anise, an unrelated plant species (related to magnolia), which nonetheless also has high levels of anethole. This high level of anethole gives it a very similar smell, flavor, and medicinal effect, being described as relieving painful cramping, gas, and nausea.
To sum up, Anise is used for phlegmy conditions (both in the lungs and intestines), crampy/bloaty conditions (digestive weakness causing gas or smooth muscle spasm), and hormonal conditions (irregular cycle with cramping and pain, as well as inhibited lactation). It can be described as “warming” and “moving”.
A little History
Around 550 BCE Pythagoras described a delicacy of fine bread made with anise seeds. Anise was also written of in many writings of Hippocrates. Dioscorides, a greek physician in the Roman army, wrote a five compendium pharmacopeia of medicinal plants of the time (first century AD.) entitled De Materia Medica (originally Περι υλης ιατρικης). In it, he described Anise as,
Anisum (some call it Sion, the Romans Anisum) has generally a warming, drying, ease-of-breath making, pain relieving, diuretic, juice thinning, and thirst quenching effect. It is good against the poisons of venomous beasts and for bloating, it stops diarrhea white flux (probably leukorrhea), promotes milk secretion and acts as an aphrodisiac. The smoke of the lighted anise, which has been absorbed through the nose, relieves headache, rubbed finely and dripped with rose oil, it heals tears in the ears.
Plinius Gaius Secundus the Elder writes:
Anise is drunk with wine to protect against scorpions, it was used both raw and cooked, as only a few plants so praised by Pythagoras (in this way)… when filled in little sacks with bitter almonds, it improves wine… it gives a younger appearance. One eliminates insomnia if one hangs it over one’s pillow, so that the sweet smell may be breathed in at night. It increases the appetite, when overindulgence has taken it away, it will awaken it. It is also believed that there is nothing better for the stomach and bowels… [Women] who smell it will also give birth more easily.
The romans made a bread with anise called Mustaceum, which was used to help in digestion after a heavy meal. However, there seem to have been many variations of it, and I can’t find an actual recipe.
From the second volume of Avicenna’s (Ibn Sina ابن سینا ) Cannon of Medicine, on Natural Pharmaceuticals, Anise (at that time called Roman Fennel) “has an “opening” (clearing deep-seated mucus in the organs) property. It has a somewhat “biting” (acrid and drying) taste. It is a pain reliever and relieves stomach gas or helps in its expulsion, in particular when roasted. … Anise is useful in treating respiratory problems and the formation of breastmilk …. anise relieves one from thirst. It removes obstructions from the liver and spleen. … Anise is a diuretic. It promotes the discharge of white fluid from the uterus. It cleanses it. Anise also acts as an aphrodisiac. It may cause constipation due to its diuretic property. It is a laxative for the kidneys, bladder, and uterus. Anise is useful in stopping bleeding ulcers of the stomach and helpful for women debilitated by loss of blood. (Bakhtiar 434)
It was mentioned in Charlemagne’s “Capiulare de villis”, where anise was instructed to be grown in monasteries. It was mentioned by Paracelsus (Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim - apparently they took names very seriously in the middle ages!), the “father of toxicology”. Hildegard von Bingen mentions anis only once in her “Causae et Curae”, and interestingly, she doesn’t list it for internal usage, but rather as a Sweatbath:
Eine Frau, die am Stocken der Monatsblutung leidet und davon Beschwerden hat, soll Anis nehmen und die gleiche Gewichtsmenge Mutterkraute und etwas mehr Königskerze als von einem dieser Kräuter und koche sie in [Wasser von] einem offenen und strömenden Fluss, weil das mit Sonne und Luft vermischt ist. Dann nehme sie Ziegelsteine, lege sie ins Feuer und mache mit dem erwähnten Wasser und den genannten Kräutern ein Schwitzbad… (Rita 198)
A woman who suffers from the faltering of menstrual blood and therefore has ailments (discomforts) because of it should take anise and the same weight of motherwort and slightly more mullein and cook them in the water of an open and flowing stream, because it is mixed with the sun and the wind. Then take bricks, lay them in the fire, and make a “steam bath” with the water and the herbs…
Hieronymus Bock (1498 - 1554 - not Hieronymus Bosch) - suggested the use of anise in his Kräuterbuch to treat edema, flatulence, stomach upset, hiccups, and leukorrhea, and suggest its use as an analgesic, as well as externally for “eye conditions”, headaches and earaches.
It was a popular and important herb in the Trotula (Trotula de Salerno) a three volume on women’s diseases, where it was used for certain types of infertility and menstrual disorders. For example, in the following recipe for Trifera Magna:
“it confers great utility to women and makes them fruitful. It is given for pain of the stomach in men and women with water in which fennel seeds, anise, and mastic have been cooked. It is [also] given for disorder of the womb caused by frigidity (disorders caused by cold) if it is drunk mixed with wine in which mugwort has been cooked. It also provokes the menses if it is made with well-ground mugwort and mixed with musk oil.” (Green, 202).
Indeed, anise makes such a frequent appearance in Medieval Materia Medicas and Antidotariums (formularies) that it’s impossible to mention them all. And in truth, it’s also not necessary, as they by and large seem to reiterate the very first observations of the greeks, romans, and persians.
Anise was quite popular in Renaissance Italy. Manuel Miro Jodral, in his “Illicium, Pimpinella and Foeniculum” has many multiple references to the use of Anise in drug preparations of the time. He writes, “As in other European countries, in Italy anise was included in numerous official preparations. The very famous Ricettario Fiorentino (1550), written in Italian and printed in Florence in 1498, which had 10 reprints before 1789, and which served as a model for many Italian and European pharmacopoeiae, contained as many as 49 preparations in which anise is present;” (Jodral, 171).
“Among the many prescriptions that contain anise, the Antidotairum Messanense, compiled by Cortesi (1629), included Oleum anisi (oil of anise), which is useful for:
Ad vertiginem, pectoris angustiam ex capitais defluxo natam, praefocationem, vomitionem, cruditatem stomachi ex flatibus confert. Aque inter cute opitulatur, uteri fluorem album exiccat, oris halitusque faetorum emendat.
Dizziness, difficulty in respiration caused by catarrh, vomit, poor digestion caused by effluvia. Reduces edemas, dries up white leaks of the uterus, corrects bad breath and a foul mouth.
At the end of the Antidotairum, the Semina Anisi are included in the “Catalogus rerum omnium quae asservari debent Messanae a Pharmacopolis in suis officinis ad usum medicum (“List of all the things Pharmacists must keep in their apothecaries for medical use”)." (Jodral, 171).
In the 1600s Anise started to become prominent in Christmas baking and in the late 1600 to 1700s began to become more widely used in beer, wine and schnapps. It was, and still is, an essential flavor in such liquors as absinthe, ouzo, and sambuca.
With the industrial revolution came methods of refining crude drugs (extractions of plants and minerals) and administration techniques (syringes and IV treatments). This invariably led to natural medicines falling out of favor in popular opinion. Rising to take its place were concentrated extractions of singular materials in tinctures, or components of materials, as well as the use of heavy metals, such as arsenic, lead, mercury, and antimony. (Which sounds absolutely insane today). Later, the rise of the pharmaceutical industry saw the final demise of widespread herbal medicine.
Even so, it seems like anise was starting to fall out of favor on its own. Like so many one-time essential medicinals, it seems to have been lumped into the category of “spice”, like cinnamon and ginger before it. One could speculate that this may because it was no longer “exotic”, or perhaps it was due to the general trend in the late 1800s in using harsher, more drastic medicinals, which were often only one step removed from poisons. The “Eclectics” of the late 1800s make little mention of it that I can find. Even the renewed interest in herbal medicine today has little, if anything, to say about it when compared with the vast volumes written about it in antiquity. Even today, the use of anise as a spice seems to also be becoming less and less common, as people rarely bake and cook for themselves, and in prepackaged foods spices are more expensive than sugar.
So, it seems, unfortunately, that both our palates and our medicine cabinets have been becoming less and less interesting over time. Let’s change that this Christmas and be a little adventurous!
Springerles date back to at least the 14th century. One of the oldest recipes was found in a cookbook from Basel, Switzerland, date 1824.
Nimm vom Mehl ein Pfund, siebe es fein und stell es über Nacht ins Ofenloch. Nimm ein Pfund trockenen Zucker und vier Eier, aber grosse; zwei Löffel ausgeblasenen Änis, wenn Du es fein haben willst, sollst Du Ihn im Ofen bähen. Vom alten Baselbieter Kirsch zwei Esslöffel (lupft sie gut und vertreibt den Eiergeschmack).
Zucker, Eier und Änis lass vom ältesten Buben rühren, dann vom zweitältesten, dann vom dritten, zusammen wenigstens eine halbe Stunde, dann gib das Chriesiwasser dazu, schaffe das Mehl darunter und wirke den Teig auf dem Wallbrett, bis er schön verbunden ist. Wälle den Teig aus, aber nicht zu dünn, und drücke mit Sorgsamkeit und Kraft die Model auf.
Hernach alles auf mehlbestäubtem Brett 24 Stunden an die Wärme gestellt und dann bei schwacher Hitze backen. Um sie schön weiss zu haben, stäube vor dem Backen Mehl darauf und blase es nachher weg.
Kriegen sie keine Füsschen, so schimpfe die Buben aus oder die Stubenmagd: War schlecht gerührt oder Durchzug in der Stube.
Änisbrötli ohne Fuessli sind ein Ärgernis
Take one pound of flour, sift it fine and place it in the oven hole over night. take a pound of dry sugar and four big eggs; two spoons of anise (if you want it to be fine, toast it in the oven). Take two tablespoons of Kirsch (cherry liquor), (beat well to remove egg flavor). Have the eldest boy mix the sugar, eggs and anise, then the second, then the third, together at least for one half hour, then add cherry schnapps, add flour underneath and work the bread on the board, until it is sticks and clumps together. Roll the dough out, but not too thin, and with care and pressure press the mold (into the dough). Afterwards leave it on a flour dusted board for 24 hours and then bake on low heat. To have a nice white (appearance), dust with flour then blow off (the extra). If they don’t have a bottom layer (of dough), the boys or the chambermaid will complain it wasn't mixed poorly or there was a draft in the room. Springerles without feet (bottom layer of flour) are annoying.
9 large eggs
2 lb powdered sugar
1 tsp. anise oil
2 lb cake flour
Parchment paper to line cookie sheets
Beat the eggs well. Add powdered sugar slowly and beat until fluffy. Add 1 t anise oil.
Beat in 3/4 of the flour on a low setting. Knead in the last 1/4 by hand to prevent over mixing. Let the dough sit for 1/2 hour up to 2 hours.
Divide the dough into four parts. The dough will be sticky. Take one of the quarters and knead in just enough flour so that it is stiffer, but still slightly sticky. Flour the cutting board, then scatter a somewhat thick layer if anise seeds on top. Roll the dough out on top of the floured cutting board to about 3/8 to 1/2 inch thickness. If you have a Springerle mold, dust it with flour and roll over the dough. If you don’t, don’t worry about, just cut the dough in 1 inch by 2 inch squares. Place the cut-out dough squares on a parchment paper lined cooke sheet. Repeat with the other 3 balls of dough.
Allow to dry at room temperature for at least 8 hours, preferably 24. Bake at 300 degrees F. for 12 - 15 minutes. The bottom should be a light golden brown.
Good luck, and let me know how yours turn out!
Bakhtiar, Laleh. Canon of Medicine Natural Pharmaceuticals. Kazi Pubns Inc, 2012.
Hildegard, and Ortrun Riha. Ursprung und Behandlung der Krankheiten: Causae et curae. Beuroner Kunstverlag, 2012. p. 198
Green, Monica H. The Trotula: an English translation of the medieval compendium of women’s medicine. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002. p. 202
Jodral, Manuel Miró. Illicium, pimpinella, and foeniculum. CRC Press, 2004. p. 171