Visitors are often surprised to see devilish gingerbread next to other holiday figures.
One curious element of Christmas in Bohemia is the omnipresent Devil, who is even seen in devilish gingerbread. The holidays are a bit confusing as Bohemian tradition has a wandering trio of Saint Nicholas (Mikuláš), an Angel (Anděl) and a Devil (Čert) patrolling squares and visiting houses on Dec. 5. From Austrian tradition, the evil child-snatching demon Krampus also comes on Dec. 5.
They now tend to gather for small parades or cosplay events. As part of this tradition, devilish gingerbread with Čert 0r Krampus figures are made and sold in a wide and tempting variety. Čert and Krampus are different legends that have merged overtime.
Christmas Eve on Dec. 24 is the big day for exchanging gifts, and Baby Jesus (Ježíšek) brings them. But due to ever expanding advertising from the U.S.-based companies, Santa Claus comes instead even though the almost identical Mikuláš was just here.
Throughout December, you can find decorated devilish gingerbread as well as chocolate statues in the shape of the Devil, an Angel and St Nick. Rectangular jam-filled and chocolate-covered puffy gingerbread rectangles (individually called a perník) or honey cakes called medovník carry printed seasonal wrappers.
You can see a devil serving an enticing piece of cake on the Temptation card in The Bohemian Fortune Telling Cards. The image is based loosely on a vintage photo of a man dressed as Čert or Krampus. This was a way of acknowledging the local folklore and also putting a more humorous twist on the idea of the Devil tempting people into evil ways.
Gingerbread in the shape of the Devil becomes more popular every year while angels are increasingly hard to find. Saint Nick, though, still holds first place. These figures can be found in the Christmas markets that pop up across Bohemia in the weeks before Christmas. The devils come in a variety of whimsical designs, as the topic is more open to creativity than either angels or St. Nick.
A few bakeries have them as well. While very hard to find nowadays, some baked holiday figures are made from vintage hand-carved wooden moulds that give some decorative details to the figures. Prices vary based on how elaborate the designs are.
Jam-filled perníks and medovníks with devils printed on the foil wrapper can be had from supermarkets and grocery stores. The cakes themselves just have a plain chocolate frosting with no special design.
Markets and sweet shops also offer chocolate figurines. Under the foil wrapping though, the chocolate Devil, Angel, and St. Nick are usually from the same generic mould that is reused for Easter. High-end sweet shops might have elaborate handmade figures of dark and white chocolate.
Making your own devilish gingerbread treats
Making your own holiday cookies is a big tradition in Bohemia. If you live here, a web search for “forma na susenky” will show you places selling cookie cutter moulds. “Čert” will find you ones for a devil, and “Vánoční sada” gets you a set of holiday forms. Be sure to check that the set includes all the shapes you want. Even without a specific mould, with a little cleverness you can use colored icing to create a devil on another shape.
When choosing a recipe, the most important thing at the start is to make sure it is for the firm and flat biscuits (cookies) and not for the taller spongy cake. Both can be called “gingerbread”.
People with a historical bent can try their their luck with Der Pfefferkuchenbäcker und Lebküchler (The Gingerbread Baker and Gingerbread Maker), a German language cookbook from 1875. It is available online for free, and can be translated with online tools. The hefty tome revealed the secrets of gingerbread guilds in four German towns.
The recipe on page 35 is for “white Nuremberger Pfeffernüßchen“ though the batch suggested may be a bit large as it calls for 20 eggs and two kilograms of sugar right off the bat. The recipe said the biscuits are ideal for pairing with punch or wine.
A few ingredients are now hard to find. Deer horn salt is a leavening agent, usually now known as hartshorn (and no longer actually made from deer horns) but baking powder can be substituted in the same amount. Cinnamon blossoms and mace blossoms are sold in speciality shops. We’ve translated and summarized the recipe for you here:
White Nuremberger Pfeffernüßchen
20 whole eggs
2¼ kg fine wheat flour
2 kg lemon balm sugar (or refined sugar)
25 gr grated deer horn salt (hartshorn or baking powder)
50 gr cinnamon
16⅔ gr cloves
5 gr cardamom
5 gr mace nuts (nutmeg)
5 gr mace blossoms
5 gr ginger
Zest of two lemons
Beat the eggs and sugar together until thick, then blend in the deer horn salt (or baking powder), spices and lemon zest. When that is done, mix in the flour. Divide the dough into 250 to 500 gram pieces, flatten with a round wood, and cut into small round cakes using a cookie cutter. Sprinkle with flour to prevent sticking. Place on non-stick or lightly oiled baking trays, leaving at least 12 mm of space between each to allow for spreading during baking. Let the cookies rest for one to two hours until a weak crust forms.
Before baking, if you are not planning to ice the cookies, daub with water using a moistened brush to create fine cracks for a pleasing appearance similar to macarons. Bake immediately in a moderately heated oven. Avoid extremes in temperature, as a slightly hot oven enhances the cookies’ beauty.