German/Christmas/Lebkuchen. These are three words that go together for anyone who has been in Germany at Christmas. You go to the Christmas markets on a cold, misty day, when it’s dark by 3.30 or 4, and the astonishingly wonderful smell that envelops you is of spice and gingerbread and Gluwein (warm spiced red wine). It’s magnificent.
Lebkuchen is often translated as gingerbread, but it’s nothing like the stuff you buy as gingerbread here, which is hard and doesn’t taste that nice. It’s perfectly good for making gingerbread houses, but I think of it as sweet construction material rather than food.
I got all excited last week when the local German immersion school had its annual Weihnachtsmarkt (German Christmas market). I heard all the German accents and hoped that meant there’d be something worth eating in the gingerbread/lebkuchen line among the stalls, but it was disappointing. There were some sensational gingerbread houses to buy, but the biscuits were not worth eating.
When I was a kid, my aunt (who lived in Germany) would send us a beautiful big box of Nürnberger Lebkuchen each Christmas. This is a specialty German spiced honey bread/biscuit that was invented by monks in the 13th century and is still made, most famously in Nürnberg (Nuremberg). The modern version comes in all kinds of biscuit shapes and sizes, some candy coated, some chocolate coated, some plain.
The box my aunt sent had them all in the prettiest of small packages, all neatly bundled together in a large decorated tin. It was the most extravagant of gifts, as she sent the box by airmail so the contents wouldn’t be stale. It was all carefully apportioned among us and eked out across December. These days, you can buy lebkuchen here, but it is often a bit stale and it is always very expensive.
Over the past few years I have experimented with various gingerbread biscuit recipes and also for Speculaas (a crisp spice biscuit usually with almonds), but today I wanted to try something a bit different. I found an old recipe from my mother that said it was for Nürnberger Lebkuchen. I have no idea where she got it from, but I suspect it was from Dr Oetker’s baking book, as that was usually the source of her baking recipes.
Nürnberger Lebkuchen. This has involved some translation, with a few baking terms that I am not entirely sure of.
175g honey (I used some molasses, just because I like the flavour of it).
2 tbs oil and 2 tbs of water
Put all these in a saucepan, mix and warm gently until everything has melted. Shift it to a mixing bowl and let it cool.
I egg yolk
1 heaped tsp cocoa
6 drops of lemon oil/essence (optional)
1 tsp ground allspice
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp powdered ginger
250g flour and 9g baking powder (about 2 heaped teaspoons), sifted
Stir all these ingredients into the sugar mix.
Then add in:
75g almond meal
75g ground hazlenuts
50g chopped candied lemon peel (I could not find any so I used some candied orange and some lemon zest)
75g chopped dried apricots
Knead lightly. Roll out to 1/2 cm thick. Cut into shapes as suits (they recipe suggests 8cm circles or rectangles of 9x6cm). I did half the mix at 1/2 cm thick in small circles, and the rest I did double thickness at 1cm, just because I thought the 1/2cm would be a bit thin.
Place on baking sheets and bake in a 180C oven for 20 minutes.
For the topping: thoroughly mix the leftover egg white with 125g icing sugar (I had none so I used caster sugar). Smear it over the top when they come hot out of the oven.
The taste is great, but the texture is more biscuity than chewy bread-like, which I suspect means there was something lost in translation. So really good, and undoubtedly better than any of the local gingerbreads I’ve tried lately, but not quite the real thing. The thicker ones are better, and the bits of dried and candied fruit are great. I’ll try again, trying something that lightens the dough a bit more.
Postscript (two weeks later)
I’ve made these a couple of times again, with a couple of minor changes. I added some coarsely ground bits of almond (a quick second or two in a food mill, so there were still pieces of almond). I’ve gone back to just honey rather than molasses. The chopped dried apricot (which I ran out of) has become a mix of dates and incaberries, which I like better so will stick with. I added a bit of nutmeg, just because.
Possibly the biggest difference is that this time, I decided to add a half a teaspoon of bicarb, with a bit less baking powder.
I made a surprisingly big difference. Suddenly they were much softer and lot more like German Lebkuchen, rather than the Pfeffernüsse.
I won’t be sure of all the reasons why they were so different, until I try again!