SOUTH PORTLAND — Alec Wall sits at his daughter’s dining room table with his grandchildren, Zack and Helen. All three are chopping almonds for Christmas cookies. Chopping, chopping, chopping. They’ll be chopping until they’ve gone through three pounds of almonds and innumerable tongue-in-cheek complaints about how long it’s taking to chop them.

Helen Hamilton, 14, Alec Wall’s granddaughter, combines ingredients for Braune Kuchen (“brown cake”) with a mixing stick that has been used for years by the family, whose cookie-making parties are a longstanding tradition.

“You’re asking a lot of a senior citizen,” joked Wall, who lives in Saco. “This is for kids.”

In between bouts of chopping, Wall takes a healthy bite of a brown cookie with colorful sprinkles on top, baked from Braune Kuchen dough he froze last year. Braune Kuchen is a German cookie that the Wall family has been coming together to bake since the early 20th century. It looks similar to gingerbread. The family gathers on Thanksgiving weekend to make the dough, which then has to sit in a cool place and season for at least three weeks before it is rolled out and baked.

As Wall consumes cookie after cookie, the women of the family warn a visitor not to judge their cherished tradition by these year-old treats.

“I think they’re better when they’re not so old,” said Barbara Coyne, Wall’s ex-wife, who still attends the family cookie-making party each year.

“This is not representative of how the cookies taste,” agreed Wall’s and Coyne’s daughter, Deborah Hamilton. “I cook them by the end of the year, then I’m done. I do not keep them. I give them to friends. I eat them.”

The family recipe for Braune Kuchen was brought to the United States from Hamburg, Germany, by Alec and Nancy Wall’s paternal grandmother, Vivian Crasemann (nicknamed “FiFi” by grandson Alec), in the early 20th century – the family isn’t sure exactly when she immigrated with her parents and sister.

Crasemann and her family settled in Milwaukee, but over the subsequent decades the family has lived in several parts of the country, including on a Pennsylvania farm, in Darien, Connecticut, and in Snyder, New York, a small community outside Buffalo. For 30 years, the family had a camp on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, and some Thanksgivings they held the cookie dough parties there. Then the parties came to Mansfield, Massachusetts, where Nancy Wall lives, and Yarmouth, Maine, where her brother Alec raised his family. Now, the tradition has come to South Portland.

Nancy Wall, left, and Themia Raymond, right, mix ingredients for German cookies called Braune Kuchen on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Helen Hamilton, center, supervises.

NO BRAUNE BETWEEN

The Braune Kuchen is like a thread that’s held the family together through all the years and all the different places they’ve lived. The cookies are thick like gingerbread, and fragrant with spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, cloves.

“It’s got a gingerbread consistency, but it doesn’t have that gingerbread taste,” Nancy Wall said. “Cardamom is one of the big ingredients. It’s hard to describe the taste.”

“People either love them or they hate them,” Hamilton said.

“That’s right,” Alec Wall said. “There’s no in between on Braune Kuchen.”

Hamilton, 14, takes a turn with a mixing stick with the dates it’s been used to make Braune Kuchen etched on the handle.

The family only stopped making the cookies once, during World War II, when butter was rationed and spices were more scarce because they came from parts of the world controlled by the Japanese or were low priority for shipping.

They started up again in 1946, when Alec Wall was 7 years old and they were living in Pennsylvania. Talking about it immediately brings up memories for the grownup Wall chopping almonds in his daughter’s house.

“Aunt Betty would come from Duluth, Minnesota, by train, and she would be there over Christmas,” Wall recalled. “She would tell us stories about the West.”

Aunt Betty also helped make the Braune Kuchen. The ingredients are measured into an old crock and mixed together with a handmade wooden paddle. The mixing process looks a bit like churning butter. The two paddles used this year were made by Alec Wall and Nancy’s husband, David.

Inscribed on one of the new paddles are the years of each cookie party, dating back to 1991. The original crock and paddle were burned in a house fire when the family lived in Yarmouth.

In recent years, the parties have been held at Nancy Wall’s home. (An uncle on the West Coast holds cookie parties for that branch of the family.) This is the second year it has been at Deb Hamilton’s South Portland home; nine people participated this year. Now Hamilton’s daughter, 14-year-old Helen, is talking about carrying on the tradition in her own home one day.

Making the dough churns up more memories. Alec Wall remembers a big, black Newfoundland-mastiff the family had when he was young, “and the dog would always come over and look at (the dough in the crock). ‘Oh, we’ve got some dog slobber. Now we’re ready to finish up.’ ”

Alec Wall samples a cookie made from a bit of last year’s dough that was frozen. The dough made Nov. 24 is supposed to sit for at least three weeks before it’s baked. Nancy Wall, for one, thinks it’s worth the wait: “The smell when they’re baking, that’s Christmas and family and Braune Kuchen.”

The jokes also fly about what’s allowed and what’s not allowed when making Braune Kuchen.

Using a mixer? “That would be illegal,” Alec Wall says.

Baking the cookies the same day you mix the dough? Also illegal.

“The thing I like about this is everything’s electronic, and everything’s fast, fast, fast, and here we are using a paddle and a stone crock,” Hamilton said.

Alec Wall laughs when he catches his granddaughter texting while simultaneously stirring the dough with her paddle.

“That’s different,” he said. “That didn’t happen 20 years ago. We have to have a break for iPhone time.”

DIVIDING THE DOUGH

The recipe has been doubled so there will be plenty of dough to split up among family members. (A cereal bowl full of dough will make about 50 cookies.) Helen stirs a batch in a crock, while Themia Raymond – Alec Wall’s significant other, who is participating for the fifth year – mixes another batch in a stainless steel container the size of a lobster pot. The family takes turns with the paddle so no one gets too tired. After the butter and sugar gets blended, Deb Hamilton and Nancy Wall start tossing in the rest of the ingredients, first some of the dry ones, then some of the wet ones. Hamilton dumps in the chopped citron, and some of it spills on the floor. Her rescue dog, Jilly, gobbles it up.

“Get the doggie drool in them!” Alec Wall calls out with a laugh, adding it would “make it authentic.”

Nancy Wall pours in the sliced lemon that has been soaking in rosewater since the night before. “The whole house smells so good” when it’s mixed together, Wall said. “It smells like lemon and roses.”

Next she pours in flour, and a handful of ground spices. The scent of cinnamon and cloves fills the room.

“This is usually how it is,” Hamilton said. “Nancy is the manager. She goes around supervising.”

Wall and Hamilton chop almonds for Braune Kuchen.

While the dough comes together, Hamilton pulls out the cookie cutters she’s used since she was a kid; she thinks they may have been her grandmother’s. She has a heart, a Christmas tree, a Santa, a star, and Santa’s boot. She and others warn that Braune Kuchen requires big cutters that don’t have intricate designs. Complicated designs won’t show up on the cookie, and could make them break.

Nancy Wall checks to be sure no flour lingers on the bottom of the crock. When the dough is ready, Hamilton said, it’s covered with wax paper or foil and then a cloth such as a dishtowel, “and then you put an X on the calendar every day, until it’s Braune Kuchen baking day.”

This year, that day will be Dec. 15.

The family insists the dough needs to sit for at least three weeks for it to taste the way it should. The wait makes the flavors meld in just the right way, they say. Hamilton stores her crock in her basement, near the bulkhead where it’s cool but it won’t freeze. She watches the weather and checks on it occasionally. “I baby-sit my dough,” she said.

The last task of the day is to divide up the dough among everyone at the party. “Themia wants two cookies,” Alec Wall said. “I need about 45.”

“The smell when they’re baking,” Nancy Wall said, “that’s Christmas and family and Braune Kuchen.”

Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MeredithGoad

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