Lebkuchen (Old-Fashioned German Gingerbread)

What a year it has been! Every year I look forward to the holiday season, but no year have I been looking forward to the holidays more than this one. One of the lessons I’ve learned from the pandemic is that those little rituals and traditions we do at different times of the year to mark special occasions help me be really present in that moment and mark the season. It has also been a really good practice for me to look at the good things and happy times in spite of the dark news and fear that surrounded much of the news cycle this year. Sometime mid-December, I came home to find a paper bag with a gift of cozily-wrapped homemade cookies from a neighborhood friend. I’m used to being the one giving out baked goods, so to receive some in return made me feel so special! Never underestimate the power of baked goods! It’s such a wonderfully practical and literally sweet way to show someone you care and that you’re thinking of them. So thank you so much, Ruth and Ray, for your wonderful baked goods!

If like us, baking is your love language and you want to share a homemade gift, I have a great recipe that can even be made ahead. I’m sure wherever you are, some of your town’s or city’s local events had to be cancelled due to the pandemic, and maybe feel like this year we are missing some of the usual holiday festiveness. Here in Minnesota, I could not go to the Christkindlmarkt in St. Paul, for instance. Many other events that I typically frequent this time of the year were cancelled too, like “Reindeer Day,” and the local Christmas tree lighting celebration. In the absence of these events, and while we are all apart and staying home but together in spirit, it was comforting for me to make heart-shaped Lebkuchen to celebrate the season and give to loved ones. Some people like to make lots and lots of different types of cookies for the holiday season, but I tend to make only a few, including Lebkuchen, or old-fashioned, heart-shaped German gingerbread.

While Lebkuchen is similar to gingerbread, it’s not exactly gingerbread. It’s rich, soft, spicy and sweet, with a cake-like texture. The original Lebkuchen date back to the 13th Century and were sweetened only with honey as it was the only sweetener available, and monks developed the recipe so they could store it and keep it on hand for hard times. The honey-sweetened dough would be made as much as two months in advance and then left to rest in a cool, dark place, where it would undergo a process of fermentation that would create bubbles and improve the texture and quality of the cookie. So it was that Lebkuchen was usually mixed in October or November and baked in December once the fermentation had passed. Lebkuchen is such an ancient cookie recipe that it was first mentioned in the city of Ulm in 1296 and then in Nuremburg in the 14th Century. There are many types of Lebkuchen, as many types as there are German families, but they all contain spices, honey, and ground nuts. The most famous Lebkuchen comes from Nuremburg. It helped that the city  sat at the crossroads of the spice route, so it was easy for residents to get all the ingredients they needed to make this treat, and to this day, Lebkuchen from Nuremburg is the most famous kind of Lebkuchen.

Today’s recipe is a different variety: it has a subtle hint of cocoa and citrus tones, and can be covered with a sugar glaze or dipped in chocolate. It’s actually my all-time favorite Lebkuchen recipe! This type of Lebkuchen is traditionally shaped into hearts and called Lebkuchenherzen. They are sold at Christmas markets and Oktoberfest, hung from ribbons, and given to friends and loved ones to express affection. The long resting period for the dough allows you to work in advance, which is perfect for the busy Advent season when we are making so many different dishes for the holidays. However, there’s another advantage: the resting period also gives time for the flavors to blend and the potash to develop its leavening power, so that the cookie will have its hallmark honeycomb crumb and complex, spiced flavor. The secret is that as the dough ages, it becomes softer and chewier. It really is the perfect Christmas cookie and it stores very well making it great for shipping! These are some of the cookie boxes I put together to give to family and friends:

So I hope you will try my recipe and share your love for others with baked goods! Happy Holidays!

Lebkuchen

Prep time: 20 minutes

Resting time: 2-8 weeks

Bake: 12 to 15 minutes per batch

Servings: 2 dozen cookies

Ingredients:

  • ¾ cup honey
  • 1 1/3 cup + 1 tbsp light brown sugar, firmly packed
  • 7 tbsp high-fat unsalted butter
  • 4 cups all-purpose flour
  • ¼ cup Lebkuchengewurtz (see note at the bottom to make your own mix)
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 2 tsp lemon peel
  • 2 tbsp cocoa powder
  • 1 tbsp potassium carbonate (potash)
  • 1 tbsp kirsch
  • 2 eggs
  • If dipping in chocolate, 7 oz milk or semi-sweet chocolate, as preferred
  • For the glaze, 26 tbsp powdered sugar, ½ cup water

Instructions:

For the cookies:

  1. Place the honey and brown sugar in a small pot over low heat and warm gently. Do not boil. 
  2. When the sugar has melted, remove from the heat and add the butter. Let the butter melt, mix thoroughly, and set aside.
  3. In a small bowl, stir the potassium carbonate into the kirsch to dissolve and set aside.
  4. In the bowl of a stand mixer, stir together flour, Lebkuchengewirtz, cinnamon, lemon peel, and cocoa powder.
  5. Add the eggs to the flour mixture, mixing on low speed.
  6. Continue mixing as you slowly add the honey mixture into the bowl of the stand mixer.
  1. Finally, pour the potassium carbonate and kirsch mixture into the dough. The aroma of the potassium carbonate can be a little strange, but it will dissipate, and will not affect the flavor of the dough. 
  2. Continue mixing in the stand mixer about 5 minutes, until the dough is shiny and glistens. 
  3. Scrape the dough into a bowl and cover it with a plate. The dough needs to breathe, so whatever plate or lid you use to cover it should not be airtight. Let the dough rest in a cool, dark place for at least 2 weeks and ideally 8 weeks. The flavor and texture of the cookie will develop and be more complex the longer you let it store. 
  4. For the day you are planning to bake the cookies, line your baking sheets with parchment paper. Place the dough on a lightly-floured work surface, kneading once or twice, and smoothening it with a rolling pin gently to ¼ inch thickness. 
  5. Use an assortment of cookie cutters to cut cookies. In Germany, hearts are the most popular, but you could also shape them into stars, bells, or animals. Place the cutout cookies on the baking sheet.
  6. Let the cookies rest for 1-2 hours at room temperature. During this time, preheat the oven to 325°F.
  7. Bake the cookies for 12-15 minutes or until puffed. They should be firm and dry, but do not let them brown!

For the Chocolate Coating:

  1. If dipping the cookies in chocolate, they should be dipped after cooling completely.
  2. Coarsely chop the 7oz chocolate and warm them up in a double boiler until melted, smooth and glossy. 
  3. Dip each Lebkuchen cookie evenly into the melted chocolate and set them to cook on a rack until the chocolate sets.

For the Glaze:

  1. The glaze should be applied to the cookies while they are warm and fresh from the oven. 
  2. Warm the 26 tbsp powdered sugar and 1 cup water in a small pot over medium high heat and bring to a boil.
  3. Cook until the water has evaporated and the glaze is thick with big bubbles.
  4. It is important to time the making of the glaze to coincide with the cookies coming out of the oven.
  5. Brush the still-warm Lebkuchen with a layer of the hot glaze and place the cookies on a cooling rack to set.

For the Lebkuchengewurtz:

The spice mix should be made in advance to save time. It lasts up to a year.

  • 5 tbsp cinnamon
  • 1 ½ tbsp cloves
  • 1 tsp allspice
  • 1 tsp cardamom
  • 1 tsp ginger
  • 1 tsp mace
  • ¾ tsp aniseed
  1. Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and mix well to combine.
  2. Store in an airtight container.

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