Hrustule - a Croatian Christmas tradition
By Joanne Martinis
Of course we had a tree with lights, hung our stockings on the fireplace and sang Christmas carols when I was a kid. But we really knew that it was Christmas when my grandfather made hrustule. When the cardboard boxes lined with foil and heaped full of these delicate, powdered sugar coated treats came out it had to be a special occasion.
A hrustule is a thin, elongated, fried cookie that, when correctly made, is crispy and delicate and will literally dissolve in your mouth when you eat it. Because of the time involved, hrustule are traditionally prepared only for important occasions. In our family they were only made at Christmas and sometimes for weddings.
Many other cultures also have a tradition of fried holiday cookies, distinguished by their unique flavorings. For example Norwegian fattigmand are very similar to Croatian hrustele, but are flavored with cardamom and lemon. Hrustule have their own unique set of flavorings. In our family, they always contained vanilla, whiskey, and a healthy dose of anise. Anise is a flavor rarely encountered in traditional American cookies and cakes, but it plays a very important role in many of the Croatian sweets I had as a child.
For many years as an adult I did not have hrustele at Christmas. The demands of my job and the lack of helping hands made the task seem daunting. Then several years ago I returned to the Pacific Northwest where several of my Martinis relatives still live. Getting together in December one year to make gingerbread houses, we started talking about Christmases past. We realized that for all of us, hrustule were a big part of the holiday. Yet we were not making them because of the work involved. Since then we have gotten together every December and made hrustule as a group. With lots of hands, the work goes quickly, and our family, friends, and neighbors all get to sample this traditional cookie.
My Teta Vesna was acknowledged as making the lightest, crispiest, most delicate, hrustule in our family, and so we use her recipe and her special techniques. We hope that this will inspire you to try these cookies in your family next Christmas.