Crescent moon cookies are a Christmas classic beloved by many generations. They look deliciously pretty on your cookie platter, and their light, delicate texture, and sweet, buttery flavor make them a delight to eat!
My mother was not a big fan of baking, and most of the year she relied on microwave dinners and store-bought cookies to feed our family. But Christmas was an exception to the rule. Mom would pull an old tin recipe box from the cabinet and find cookie recipes that had been passed down through our family for generations.
The yellowed old cards featured the elegant handwriting of my mother’s great-grandmother, who had brought the recipes for their beloved Christmas cookies from Germany when the family immigrated in the 1800s. One of these recipes was for crescent moon cookies, which had come to be known also as “shortbreads” in my family over the generations.
I remember grinding the nuts, carefully forming the tender dough into little logs and then pinching the ends and turning them into tiny crescents. They were one of my family’s most favorite holiday treats, and we looked forward to eating them every year.
Fast forward about 20 years to my study abroad year in Germany during college. My German pen-pal (and future husband) welcomed me to his family’s Christmas celebration, and it was a surprise to see the tiny little crescent moon cookies on their holiday cookie platter as well.
Biting into one of the tender little cookies brought a tear to my eye as the tastes of home returned to me. Although my family was far away that year, the cookies reminded me that a little bit of home could be found in the most unexpected places. Baking the cookies with my daughter reminds us of the connections to our German relatives on both sides of our family, and of the connections that we all share.
During my months abroad, I also saw the cookies sold in bakeries and at the magical outdoor Christmas markets in the old town squares. Known as “Vanillekipferl” or “vanilla crescents” around Germany, I learned that these cookies had a history much longer than I’d ever realized.
Vanillakipferl originated in Vienna, Austria, and are a famous specialty of the town of Noerdlingen, across the border of Germany, in Bavaria. The shape of the cookie is said to be a symbol of a victory of the Hungarians over the Turkish army, back in the day when Austria was still known as Austria-Hungary.
The crescent moon is prominently displayed on the Turkish flag even today. These cookies are now popular throughout Europe and variations of them can be found in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary — and even Italy. They are also often sold in Viennese coffee shops as a favorite afternoon treat with coffee or tea.
The traditional version is made with walnuts, almonds or hazelnuts, and you can choose your favorite nut, or use all three!
Tips for making crescent moon cookies
Unlike most Christmas cookies, the crescent moon takes a little extra care to make and store.
The ground almonds give the cookie a delicious taste, but they also make the dough a little crumbly, so extra care is needed when shaping the tiny crescents and when storing them in an air-tight container to prevent breakage. It is this light and tender texture that makes them delicate — but also so delicious!
Keep the dough refrigerated and cool before you begin shaping the cookies to help retain the firmness of the butter. The dough may crumble a bit when you first start, but eventually the warmth from your hands will give it a soft pliability that is just right. Also be sure not to over-bake the cookies. Bake them just until they look firm without browning.
Leave them on the cookie sheet for a few minutes to allow them to firm up further after removing them from the oven. Adding the powdered sugar while they are still warm will help it to adhere better to the little moons.
You can make them in the traditional crescent shape, or personalize them by making them into tiny snowballs or rolling them into little cylinders like a Yule log.
No matter what shape you choose, one bite of the sweet, light and airy little crescents, and you will know why this recipe was viewed as a treasure worth taking across the ocean to a new home!