*note: this entry updated in Dec 2012.
In Munich a few weeks back, our (American) friend and Clara’s (German) uncle got into a to-us-ridiculous debate about whether gingerbread was lebkuchen. Elizabeth maintained it was; Eckhart was adamant it wasn’t. We were at the holiday market in Marienplatz, poking through cookie cutters, and had come across some tiny gingerbread men (we bought ourselves a wooden owl to make springerle!) Hence the discussion. (We don’t regularly argue about the finer points of American and German baking, though perhaps we should start.)
From Elizabeth’s description, we were sure she was right, until we tried some at the holiday market in Nuremberg, the supposed lebkuchen birthplace.
Eckhart was right.
Lebkuchen is not gingerbread. It’s better than gingerbread. Chewy and dense, with hints of anise and candied orange, often coated in dark chocolate, lebkuchen is like gingerbread’s adult cousin. It’s made from admittedly more sophisticated ingredients, and the result is a far superior cookie. It’s really not gingerbread at all. (So if you’re thinking this recipe will simply be an excellent gingerbread cookie, you’ll be disappointed.)
The most obvious difference between the two cookies is that lebkuchen is made from nut flours, not wheat flour, and uses brown sugar in place of molasses. It’s inadvertently gluten-free, which is, actually, quite helpful come holiday season. So, one point for lebkuchen!
Lebkuchen is so prevalent in Germany around December that you can pick up some specially packaged lebkuchen spice at any old grocery store for the occasion:
It contains cinnamon, orange peel, coriander, lemon peel, star anise, fennel, nutmeg flowers, cloves, and cardamon. With a little work, it can be recreated. Or tweaked. The anise and fennel are dominant flavors in this mix, which we love, though we’d also prefer a touch more cinnamon (perhaps our gingerbread memory is stronger than we thought?) and will add some extra next time.
Another easy-to-find in Germany ’round Christmas time, also for making lebkuchen, is back-oblaten, or baking wafers, which typically line the bottom of lebkuchen. They’re helpful in keeping the sticky cookie from sticking while baking, and a fun bit of texture to the cookie itself. Still, though traditional, they are by no means required. (In New York, you can find back-oblaten at some specialty baking shops, or at German spots like Stammtisch.)
We were lucky to be cooking in a well-equipped kitchen over the holidays, stocked with beautifully ground almond flour. For the hazelnuts, we put in some time cracking and peeling (which made us realize we don’t actually have a nutcracker in Brooklyn!) and ground the hazelnuts ourselves in a food processor. The result was not quite as fine as the almond flour, but the cookie’s texture is quite forgiving. (However, do try to grind your nuts as close to flour as possible, as that is their function in this recipe. Too coarse, and the dough will be thin and gloppy.)
As for the candied fruit, we had some homemade candied orange peel on hand, but otherwise the candied peel that stores stock in December for the likes of fruit cake (which is delicious, despite its reputation) will do just fine.
The recipe here calls for cookies that are at least 2 cm tall. We assumed this meant they would spread considerably when baked, but they didn’t. If you prefer your cookies smooth and perfectly round rather than craggy and misshapen, wet your fingers with some water and pat the cookies into perfect shape before you leave them to rest. If you’re using oblaten, push the dough to the edges of the wafer – the edges can be thinly covered, but do make sure to get the edge.
We dipped some in chocolate, and iced others – just like the ones in Nuremberg.
Adapted from Clara’s aunt
makes about 2 dozen cookies, at 2 1/2 inches in diameter
50 grams candied orange peel, finely diced
50 grams candied lemon peel, finely diced
3 tbsp rum
100 grams ground hazelnuts
100 grams ground almonds (skins or no, to your liking)
7 grams lebkuchen spice
1/4 tsp baking powder
150 grams brown sugar
a pinch of salt
24 back-oblaten, 70mm in diameter (optional)
200 grams chocolate (sweetness to your liking)
3 tablespoons of butter
1/2 cup confectioners sugar
1. Mix candied peel with rum, set aside to soak. Toss ground nuts with spices and baking powder and set aside.
3. Beat the eggs on high until pale and yellow, about four minutes. Add sugar and salt and beat another good while, five minutes or so. The more you whip the eggs, the better your cookies with turn out.
4. If the candied peel is too wet (though it likely won’t be) drain. Using a wooden spoon, fold the flour mixture and candied rum peels into the egg mixture.
5. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Place rounded spoonfuls of the mixture on the parchment paper, making sure each cookie is at least 2 cm tall and leaving 3 – 4 cm between them. Optional: if using back-oblaten, form cookies directly on wafers, making sure that each cookie is about 2cm tall. Again, as the cookies don’t spread in baking, cover the entire wafer.
6. Allow the cookies to rest for one hour at room temperature.
7. Preheat the oven to 150 C / 302 F.
8. Bake cookies for about 15-18 minutes, rotating pans halfway through, until cookies are brown and firm to the touch, but not hard. You want the cookies to browned, but still moist inside. It’s better to air on the side of slight undercooking, than to overcook them. Remove them from the oven and cool slightly on the baking sheet before transferring to a wire rack.
Optional glazing (allow cookies to cool completely, first!)
For the chocolate: Chop chocolate into small pieces and melt over a double boiler. Remove from heat. Cut butter into small pieces, add to chocolate, and stir until the butter has melted and the chocolate is glossy. Holding the cookie by the edges and using a knife, coat entire cookie (top and bottom) with a thin, even layer of chocolate. Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. When all cookies are done, set in the fridge to harden.
For the icing: Mix confectioners sugar with cold water, starting with just 1 tablespoon and adding in small increments, until the icing is thin enough to spread but not runny. Spread over the top and bottom of each cookie, and smooth out using a knife. When all cookies are done, set in the fridge to harden.
Cookies will keep refrigerated up to two weeks. Store between layers of wax paper.