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from The Book Club Cookbook, Revised Edition (Tarcher, 2012),© Copyright 2012, Judy Gelman and Vicki Levy Krupp.

Chapter: THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak

Markus Zusak explains how his mother’s cookie recipe worked its way into The Book Thief:

In The Book Thief, the main character, Liesel, soon discovers a constant venue for her book stealing. It’s the mayor’s wife’s library, and when she’s found okipferlut, and even encouraged by the aforementioned woman, she is pretty much given a free run at the books there.

At one point, a dictionary is leaning against the window, but it’s around Christmas that a plate of cookies is also left on the table inside. When you’re writing a book, you want to be familiar with even the smallest details in the world you’re creating. For me, there was no question what those cookies would be. They would be vanilla kipferls—exactly what my mother used to make when we were children.

I guess sometimes it’s the smallest things that make a story ring true. You don’t think
when you’re young that standing in the kitchen and helping out will be useful in any number of ways later on. For me, it hopefully added just one more small ingredient to make the world of my book both authentic and recognizable.

Markus Zusak’s Vanilla Kipferls (Crescent Cookies)

Growing up in the southern suburbs of Sydney, Australia, my family was a small oddity; our last name wasn’t Smith, Jones, or Johnson. Even as kids, we knew that our parents—who had immigrated separately from Germany and Austria—had brought a whole different world with them when they came to Australia. This was often felt most around Christmas, when we celebrated on Christmas Eve as opposed to Christmas Day. We cooked up weisswurst and leberkase and rouladen, with kraut and potato salad, and everything happened in the night.

The other memory I have of that time, of course, is the sweet things. For starters, my mother would make colossal gingerbread slabs and fashion them into houses. Sometimes her construction work was sound. Sometimes it wasn’t. Us kids would decorate the houses with icing and lollies that ranged from smarties (like M&M’s), freckles, crunchie bars, and jaffas. The jaffas always went along the top, on the ridge. Sometimes small pretzels also found their way onto those rooftops, and it really was the time of our lives, especially given that we felt deprived all year of these things! Of course, we loved it when the houses collapsed as we decorated them—it just meant that they had to be eaten immediately . . . so there was always plenty going on at our place around Christmas.

Next to the gingerbread houses, the accompanying ritual was the making of vanilla kipferls. This is technically the wrong plural—in German there’s no s on the end—but I’ll go with the English version here. As a child, I remember making the mixture and taking clumps of it and rolling it into a long sausage. We would then chop it into the sizes we wanted and make them into horseshoe shapes. Of course, these cookies were always best made on cold days, which can be hard to come by in Australia around December. Still, that’s what I do now. As soon as there’s a cooler day in the lead-up to Christmas, I start making vanilla kipferls. For the first time this year, I made them with my daughter, who just turned four. That’s the other good thing about this recipe. Kids can easily get involved. The ingredients are minimal, and if you destroy a cookie or two in the dough-making, it doesn’t matter. You just squash it up and try again.

The only warning I offer apart from choosing the right day to make them is that no matter how well you make these cookies, they’ll never taste as good as your mother’s. It’s just the way it goes.

Note: Hazelnut meal is made from ground-up hazelnuts, and can be found at specialty grocers and online. You can also make your own hazelnut meal: Preheat oven to 350°F. Place 6 ounces (1 1/4 cups) of shelled hazelnuts on a baking sheet in a single layer. Bake 8–10 minutes, stirring occasionally so nuts don’t burn, until they are fragrant and browned. Remove tray from oven and let nuts cool slightly. While still warm, fold the nuts inside a clean kitchen towel and rub vigorously to remove their skins. Place nuts in a food processor fitted with the stainless-steel blade, and process until they are finely ground.

Using two vanilla beans will give the cookies a more intense vanilla flavor. However, vanilla beans are expensive, and just one bean will still impart a delicious hint of vanilla.

For the cookies

1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
1 1 /4 cups hazelnut meal (see note)
2/3 cup granulated sugar
14 tablespoons (1 ¾ sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

For the vanilla sugar

1/3 cup confectioners’ sugar
1–2 whole vanilla beans, cut crosswise into 1-inch pieces (see note)

1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Spray two baking sheets lightly with cooking spray.

2. To make the cookies: Combine the flour, hazelnut meal, and granulated sugar in a large bowl. Cut butter into 1/2-inch pieces and add to flour mixture. Using your fingers, mix butter and flour thoroughly for 8–10 minutes, until a soft dough is formed.

3. Pinch off small pieces of dough and mold gently between your palms to form 3-inch ropes, thicker in the middle and tapered at the ends. Fashion each piece into a crescent shape and place onto the prepared trays, leaving a generous 1/2-inch in between (they do spread a little and grow in size when cooked).

Yield: About 3 1/2 dozen cookies

Excerpt from The Book Club Cookbook, Revised Edition (Tarcher, 2012) © Copyright 2012, Judy Gelman and Vicki Levy Krupp.