There are many holiday indicators in this town, maybe because we don't have all those falling leaves and snowstorms, but over the years one of the best of them has been the holiday baked goods from Hans Röckenwagner and his team. These are not your average Christmas cookies, so don't expect silly shapes and garish frostings.
Instead, the German-born Röckenwagner has made it something of a personal mission to re-create German holiday recipes with a particular historical significance. Seasonal stollen, for example, laden with fruit and dusted with a heavy sugar snowfall, based on the original Dresdner stollen from the 15th century. Elisen lebkuchen, made with a special spice mixture and formed atop imported wafers called oblaten. Glazed spice bars called Basler leckerli. This year he's debuting spekulatius, crunchy, spiced shortbread cookies that are made by pressing the dough into molds carved with figures, like ornate animal crackers.
This year, and available now, you can get all these lovely things at Röckenwagner's two bakery-cafes and his Venice restaurant 3 Square, at the many farmers markets they attend, at Gelson's and Whole Foods -- and, possibly as soon as mid-December, at the new Café Röckenwagner opening at the corner of Barrington and Wilshire in Santa Monica. As of today, they're hoping to open it on Dec. 16.
But, and this disclaimer should go for any restaurant trying to open in this town, things do not always go as planned. In which case, the new cafe likely will open the first week in January. Once you get a sense of the kind of work that goes into all Röckenwagner's holiday cookies, you'll know why opening smack in the middle of the Christmas season isn't exactly ideal.
Because Röckenwagner doesn't just mold a few thousand spekulatius on some giant machine and then go eat a pretzel. The cookies are made a few at a time, on a machine that requires four bakers to operate it. The machine itself is a 1960s contraption made in Holland, which Röckenwagner bought from a baker in Germany who was going out of business -- and disassembled and shipped back to California via FedEx parcel. Quite a few FedEx parcels, we're told, each of which was greeted with great relief at the giant bakery on West Adams, as the whole project would have been kaput if any one of the packages had gone missing. You can't just find a replacement for this thing on eBay.
Once they got the machine reassembled, Röckenwagner retrofitted it for American electricity and built a base (he's a carpenter as well as a baker; just look at the wooden cases the next time you're having lunch), then finally replaced the belt on the machine. The original belt, it should be mentioned, had not only come still attached to the machine but was utterly saturated in butter -- decades of it. Imagine.
The spekulatius machine also has extra little rollers, with extra fun shapes -- including one molded in the shape of a pretzel. No wonder Röckenwagner bought the thing. For bakery geeks, the name spekulatius probably is taken from the Latin for "speculum," or mirror, as the images are imprinted onto the cookies in a kind of mirrored bas relief. If you spend any time in Trader Joe's aisles, you'll recognize the similarity to speculoos, which is the Dutch version of the dough.
Among Röckenwagner's holiday items this year are Thanksgiving pies and two kinds of panettone, one with the customary fruit and citrus, the other with added chocolate chips. And you'll be happy to know that the bakers are already dreaming up items for next year's holiday season. "We're trying to find every year one product to bring over from Germany," says Wolfgang Gussmack, the Austrian-born chef who has been with the Röckenwagner operation since 2002.
If old-fashioned spice cookies aren't your thing (really??), then you might want to queue up at the new Café Röckenwagner for some of the new plated desserts. Yes, you'll be able to get plated desserts along with your pretzel croissants and the kind of breakfast, lunch and dinner items at 3 Square. New pastry chef César Bermúdez, who's worked in the pastry kitchens of the Bazaar, Pierre Hermé and El Bulli, is making a new line of desserts and pastries.
It probably will come as no surprise to learn that the massive Röckenwagner bakery on West Adams never closes, that the ovens are never turned off. Fröhliche Weihnachten indeed.
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