Christmas Cookies 2: Lebkuchen

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Soon after I started this blog in June, a reader asked about Lebkuchen, a traditional German Christmas cookie.

Nuremburg is Ground Zero for Lebkuchen (in deference to German style, I’m capitalizing it wherever it is used in the sentence–and note that the word can be singular or plural.)

We were in Nuremberg for a short visit in May of 2012, and even so far removed from Christmas, Lebkuchen were all over the place, from stalls in the market to bakeries and gift stores in the town.

First made in 1296

According to Wikipedia, the first record of Lebkuchen comes from the city of Ulm in 1296. Nuremberg lore tells that Emperor Friedrich II held a Reichstag there in 1487 and invited the city’s children to a special event where he gave out almost 4,000 Lebkuchen imprinted with his portrait.

No one really knows what the word means, though “kuchen” is “cake” in German. Says Wikipedia, “Derivations from the Latin libum (flat bread) and from the Germanic word Laib (loaf) have been proposed. Another likely possibility is that comes from the old term Leb-Honig, the rather solid crystallized honey taken from the hive that cannot be used for much beside baking. Folk etymology often associates the name with Leben (life), Leib (body), or Leibspeise (favorite food).”

Large cookies (or cakes)

“Cake” may be a more descriptive word for this confection than “cookie,” because they are usually quite large – in Germany, they’re usually at least five inches in diameter if round and even larger if rectangular, though minis are also available.

Lebkuchen are often packed in decorative tins, chests and boxes, some of which become collectors’ items. Some are shaped like hearts, or horses, or other special shapes.

Lots of varieties

Recipes differ, but Lebkuchen usually include honey, nuts or candied fruit, and a variety of spices such as ginger, aniseed, coriander, cloves, cardamom and allspice.

Historically, and due to differences in the ingredients, Lebkuchen is also known as honey cake (Honigkuchen) or pepper cake (Pfefferkuchen).

Most Lebkuchen are soft, but there are harder varieties as well, including the type used to make gingerbread houses and gingerbread men.

Here are some of the various types of Lebkuchen, as described by the German Food Guide.

Oblaten Lebkuchen
“Oblaten” are thin wafers. Oblaten Lebkuchen are cookies in which the dough is baked on a thin wafer. Historically, this was done to prevent the cookie from sticking to the cookie sheet.

Elisen Lebkuchen
These are the highest quality Oblaten Lebkuchen available. They must have at least 25 percent almonds, hazelnuts, and/or walnuts (no other kinds of nuts are allowed). Likewise, they must contain no more than 10 percent flour.

Nürnberger Lebkuchen
These are Lebkuchen that are baked in the city of Nürnberg, and are worldwide the most well-known. They are often baked on Oblaten (thin wafers), and they are known for their light, soft texture. Marzipan is often an ingredient of these cookies.

These are Lebkuchen onto which a picture is drawn or imprinted.

Brown (Braune) Lebkuchen
These cookies are made from a honey or syrup dough. The dough is either molded, cut, or formed and it is baked without Oblaten (thin wafers—see “Oblaten Lebkuchen” above). The baked cookies are often covered with a sugar glaze or chocolate.

White (Weisse) Lebkuchen 
These cookies get their name from their very light color. They get this color from a high amount of whole eggs and/or egg whites in the dough. They are usually decorated with almonds and/or candied lemon and orange peels.

Trader Joe is selling chocolate covered Oblaten, but if you want some, get ‘em now—they’re a seasonal treat and when they’re gone, that’s it till next year.

Here is a recipe I got from a blog called Brown-Eyed Baker. I chose it because it looked relatively easy to make. It has no fat and lots of spice flavor. You can easily add chopped nuts or dried or candied fruit if you like.

Some people commenting on the blog said these cookies came out hard, so try not to work in too much extra flour when you knead and roll out the dough. Also do not overbake them. Most of mine were fairly soft. I overbaked a few—by only a few minutes—and they were indeed very hard though still tasty. If you like very crunchy cookies, you won’t have to worry. If your baked cookies are too hard for your taste, put them in a storage container with a few slices of apple and they should soften up in a few days.

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