In1157 Benedictine Abbess Hildegard, a scholar who corresponded with popes and royalty and authored tomes and treatises on natural science, medicine, theology, metaphysics and music, wrote “Physica: Liber Simplicis Medicine,” a book on healthy living and eating. In it, Hildegard included a recipe for what can best be described as a healthy cookie made with honey, ground almonds and spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves.
Bridging the time – and geographic span across both a millennium and between Germany and Ferdinand, a small Germanic town in Southern Indiana, the Benedictine sisters at the Monastery Immaculate Conception use the 12th century abbess’s recipe, making spice cookies. Called, of course, Hildegards, and baked in their Simply Divine Bakery and sold in their For Heaven’s Sake Gift Shop and online (sisters are very modern these days and the monastery even has a blog).
“Saint Hildegard did a lot of work with herbs,” says Sister Jean Marie Ballard who oversees the bakery at the monastery which during the holiday season is a very busy place. “And her book is all about her philosophy of herbal medicines and foods,”
The grand Monastery Immaculate Conception sits atop a hill in the wooded and softly rolling hills of Dubois County, looking like a European castle. The Sisters of Benedict founded their monastery back in the 1860s and though they have embraced technology and modernity, they also still harken back to traditions too. And in their bakery, this heritage is apparent in the cookies they make and sell.
As Hildegard grew her own herbs, in the summer, on the monastery’s 190-acres, they grow peppermint to use for their buttermint cookies some of which are coated with dark chocolate.
But delicious as these are, the monastery’s best selling cookie is the springerle and they make and sell about 2700 dozen during their peak months – October through February. That may not sound like a lot, but the cookies are handmade by a group of the sisters using hand presses brought by a sister from Germany over a century ago.
“It’s a very time consuming process,” says Ballard. “They take a long time to make and five of us often work on them at a time.”
Traditionally, springerles are made with anise oil but for those who don’t like the licorice flavor, the sisters created almerles using the same recipe but substituting almond oil for the anise, though the anise flavored ones remain their best seller.
Leading the baking of the springerles is Sister Barbara Jean who grew up in the predominantly German areas of Ferdinand and nearby Jasper.
“She’s been making them since she was young,” says Ballard, “and so she is the expert as they’re not easy to make.”
Cookies are only one reason. The monastery, with its Byzantine-Romanesque buildings including an 87-foot-high domed church, is one of the largest communities of Benedictine sisters in this country. In 1867, four nuns of the Benedictine St. Walburga Abbey in Eichstaett, Bavaria, arrived here to educate the area's many Catholic immigrants enticed here by the dense forests that reminded them of their native land.
Extending hospitality is a Benedictine tradition, one dating back 1500 years to the founding of the order. Imagine Saint Hildegard, all those centuries ago, serving her cookies to tired travelers looking for spiritual solace and the chance for something good to eat.
It has long been a tradition in the monastery to make these cookies using Hildegard’s recipe which was recorded in 1157.
A Google search quickly led me to the recipe which calls for spelt flour, often available at health food stores, but whole wheat flour can be substituted. Besides that, all of the ingredients except for kelp, which is optional, are probably already in your pantry.
Saint Hildegard’s Cookie
1/2 cup softened butter
1/2 cup honey
In separate bowl, mix together:
2 cups flour (spelt, whole wheat, or 1/2 cup garbanzo flour plus 1 1/2 cups wheat)
1 tablespoon baking soda
1 tsp dulse or kelp (optional, but this adds valuable trace minerals)
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 tablespoon ground fenugreek (optional)
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup chopped almonds or walnuts (optional)
Make a well in the middle of the dry ingredients. Pour liquid ingredients in well and mix into dry ingredients.
Chill in refrigerator to cool, to make it easier to work with (optional). Form into walnut sized balls.
Place on greased and floured cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes.
To order cookies, call 812 367-1411 or visit www.thedome.org