Lebkuchen: German Gingerbread
Lebkuchen, traditionally speaking is a baked delight which is popularly prepared during the time of Christmas. It is also otherwise known as pfefferkuchen and holds significant resemblance with the gingerbread.
The word root of the prefixed leb- in the term lebkuchen is quite unknown but linguists have suggested that the word has a Latin base. It can be traced from the word libum which means a flat bread. Lebkuchen came into the German language from the word Laib which is used when referring to a loaf of bread. Furthermore, it is a derivative of the word lebbe or something which is very sweet. Another possible source is the word Leb-Honig which is used in reference to solid crystallised honey that is taken from a beehive. There is also a folk etymological root which can be traced from the word Leben, meaning life or Leib, or body, or Leibspeise which means a favourite food. The word Kuchen, however, means – cake.
The History behind Lebkuchen
Historical roots of the lebkuchen go back to the times of ancient Egypt, the Greeks and the Romans. At that time it was popularly called the honey cake. Honey was the only sweetener which widely available during that point in time hence it also carried wide scopes of associations. Some considered honey to be a gift from the Gods and also regarded it to have varied magical properties along with curative potentials.
As far as the origins of lebkuchen are concerned, the Franconian Monks of Germany are regarded in this respect. It was invented way back in the 13th century and the earliest record of a lebkuchen being produced is dated to the year 1296. By the year 1395, the recipe had moved to Nuremberg where it was further perfected. Till date, Nuremberg is the most prominent exporter of the lebkuchen. Their exported products are tagged as Nürnberger Lebkuchen or Nuremberg Lebkuchen.
Furthermore, the local histories of Nuremberg suggest that in the year 1487 Friedrich III had organised a Reichstag. For the very occasion, he then invited all the children of the city to take part in the specially organised event. During the proceedings of this event, he had presented them with lebkuchen which bore a printed portrait of nearly four thousand children.
Historical records also suggest that for the longest time lebkuchen was known by many names such as honey cake or Honigkuchen or pepper cake or Pfefferkuchen. The size of these cookies has traditionally been quite large. Most of the time measuring 11.5 centimetres or 4.5 inches in diameter in case it was prepared in a circular shape; however, its size gets larger if they are prepared in a square shape.
The year 1808 onwards many different versions of the lebkuchen were developed. Some of them were prepared without using flour and they came to be known as – Elisenlebkuchen. The prefixed word: Elise has boggled the minds of culinary historians for a long time. They have come to the conclusion that it could have been the name of a certain gingerbread maker or the name of the wife of a Margrave. Margrave is a medieval title which is given to a military commander who is assigned to maintain the defence on the border regions.
Furthermore, since 1996, the Nürnberger Lebkuchen has come into the protected designation of origin. Meaning, it can now onwards only be produced within the territorial confines of Nuremberg and no other place.
The different varieties of Lebkuchen
Lebkuchen comes in a whole range of tastes – the sweet along with the spicy kind’s hold quite a bit of popularity everywhere. Moreover, they are also prepared in different shapes and sizes wherein the most commonly available shape is round.
Usually, the ingredients used in the preparation of a lebkuchen are – spices such as aniseed, coriander, cloves, ginger, cardamom, and allspice, nuts including almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts, or candied fruit, and most importantly honey.
In Germany for instance, one can distinguish the different varieties of lebkuchen by taking into account the kinds of nuts that are used in its preparation. In addition to that Salt of Hartshorn and potash are other important components in the process. They are used for the purpose of rising lebkuchen’s dough. Thereon, this dough is typically placed atop thin wafers that are called oblates. This particular step is credited to creative minds of the Franconian monks who in their production processes would use unleavened communion wafer. It prevented the dough from sticking. Faintly, the dough gets glazed or it can also be covered with the concentration of very dark chocolate. However, this is not a mandatory step and sometimes a few of the doughs remain uncoated.
There is another version of the lebkuchen which is much harder than the traditional version. The harder kind, when produced, gets the name – Lebkuchenherz or the Lebkuchen hearts. Such versions usually carry inscriptions which are done by using icings and can be widely seen during many of the regional Germanic fairs and are particularly prominent during Christmas fairs. If you happen to be in Germany during Oktoberfest then you are most likely to find them carrying quite interesting inscriptions – some of them have written: with affection over them others carry sarcastic or obscene messages. Another popular variety is the witch’s house or the Hexenhäusel or Hexenhäuschen. They hold particular significance for children because of the fairy tale – Hansel and Gretel.
Lebkuchen began to be commercially produced in the 14th century in Nuremberg. By the year 1643, the city was officially marked on the map for its different varieties and also for the quality of lebkuchens that they produced. Nuremberg also officially recognised a certain group of professional bakers who collectively were known as the League of Lebkuchen-Bakers. This very league is responsible for the conception of stricter guidelines pertaining to the production and the associated processes in the year 1645. Lebkuchen began to be industrially produced by the year 1867.
Storage and Quality
The Oblaten Leberkuchen unlike their brown lebkuchen counterparts come with a much quicker expiry date. Its aromatic composition and soft texture usually remains good enough for consumption for a maximum of 6 to 8 weeks. Ideally, they have to be stored with the packaged wrapping on or the better way to store them is by placing them in an airtight plastic container. Moreover, they should be stored in a cool and dark place to prevent any further contamination. However, they should be consumed at the earliest.
Now, in case the Oblaten lebkuchen has turned dry then you must place them in a container which is made of plastic or glass along with freshly cut pieces of apples. The lebkuchen tend to absorb the moisture from the apples and regain their original form.
With that done, seal the container either with an aluminium foil or by using an airtight lid. If either of them is not available then the best thing to do is to place a plastic sheet over the opening and tighten it by using a rubber band. More importantly, they should not be stored with the apples for more than 24 hours, otherwise mould formations would begin to erupt. In any case, the fresher they are consumed the better will be the flavour.
Another issue that usually bothers people is the melting of the chocolate glaze, in no case has it been observed to hinder the taste and flavouring of the lebkuchen. Melting of the chocolate glaze is quite the usual phenomenon.
How to prepare the lebkuchen spices?
Nowadays one can find a lot many speciality stores or specific German stores from where it becomes easy to procure a premixed packaged Lebkuchen Gewürz. In case that is not available you may go on and make some on your own by following the steps below:
- Cinnamon: 2 T (grounded)
- Cloves: 2 tsp. (grounded)
- Allspices: ½ tsp. (grounded)
- Nutmeg: ¼ tsp. (grounded)
- Coriander: ½ tsp. (grounded)
- Cardamom: ½ tsp. (grounded)
- Ginger: ½ tsp. (grounded)
- Anise seeds: ½ tsp. (grounded)
Mix them well and generally, one is required to use about 1 to 2 tablespoons of the mixture.
The following recipe will take up 45 minutes in total and should be able to serve 32 cookies.
- Butter: 113 grams or ½ c. (softened)
- Sugar: 200 grams or 1 c.
- Eggs: 4
- White flour: 360 grams or 3 c.
- Lebkuchen spices: 1 T. or 6 grams
- Cocoa powder: 2 T. or 12 grams
- Double acting baking powder: 1 ½ teaspoon
- Milk: 1 c. or 225 ml.
- Almonds: 150 grams or 1 ¾ c. (grounded)
- Candied lemon peel: ½ c or 100 grams (chopped)
- Orange liqueur or rum: 1 T
- Granulated sugar: ½ c
- Water: ¼ c.
- Vanilla: ½ teaspoon
- Rum or Liqueur: 1 to 2 T
- Powdered sugar: ½ c.
- Oblaten or baking wafers: 32 (with a size of 3 inches)
- Raisins: ½ c. (soaked in rum and then chopped)
- Coconut: ¼ c. (shredded)
You begin by a large bowl, ideally made of an unreactive material such as ceramic or glass. In this bowl go on and cream the butter and further add sugar along with the eggs. Lightly whisk them at first and when they begin to get combined increase the intensity. The idea is to reach a point where the mixture becomes light and fluffy.
In a completely separate bowl of similar dimensions go on and mix – flour, spices, cocoa powder and baking powder. With each ingredient, you need to alternate with milk. Now, using a spatula mix them well and make sure that they get combined evenly. Then you can place in the nuts and the lemon peel, this has to be done while mixing them continuously. Next, pour in the rum along with the chopped raisins and shredding of coconut. However, coconuts and raisins can also be avoided. Furthermore, if the Oblaten is not available, in that case, you will have to take a parchment paper and cut circles with diameters of 3 inches. This can be neatly done by using a cup or a biscuit cutter.
Right at the centre of each of the parchment paper pieces place approximately 3 tablespoons of the cookie dough. In case you are using an Oblaten then you can drop the dough upon the wafer and then smooth the edges. As and when you get done keep on placing each one of them on a tray and when the tray gets full you can use the back of the spoon to create small mounds on the centre of the dough.
When you are done with that go on and place the tray in the oven. Set the temperature at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 to 20 minutes. The important thing to remember is that you will have to go on and observe the cookies as they are getting baked. If the browning is happening at an increasing rate then you might as well turn down the temperature to 350 degrees Celsius to prevent them from getting burnt.
Now, when they are ready, get the tray out and allow the lebkuchen to cool down. In the meantime, you can prepare the glaze. For this purpose, you will need a medium-sized non-stick saucepan. Put about ½ c. of sugar and then add about ¼ c. of water while the saucepan is on the stove. Get the water to boil and let it remain in that state for a few minutes. Then you can go on and add the vanilla along with rum or liqueur depending on the availability. Then you can sift some amounts of powdered sugar and throw it in the hot sugar syrup while stirring the liquid consistently.
Next, you will need a pastry brush. Using the brush you glaze the warm cookies. Let the cookies dry up. You will be required to dry glaze them for at least a day so that they remain crunchy and then store them in an airtight container or simply place them in a freezer.
The lebkuchen is ready and can be consumed preferably hot and fresh.