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Holiday cookies with a German accent
Lebkuchen cookies are German tradition consumed around the world
What do you like most about Christmas? If it's Santa Claus and fir trees and mulled wine you ought to thank the Germans, because these, like most of our holiday customs are Germanic, not English. (The English themselves, for that matter, adopted them as their own back when Queen Victoria married Prince Albert, a German.) And if, like me, you think of Christmas as a time for cookies, you ought to be especially grateful to the Germans, because they invented that custom too.
German Lebkuchen, the Cadillac (or should I say Mercedes-Benz?) of spice cookies, was probably the first cookie traditionally associated with Christmas. Certainly without Lebkuchen it wouldn't be Christmas in Germany (where 85 percent of the billion or so annually consumed are devoured between October and December), just as it wouldn't be Christmas in France without the Buche de Noel or in England without plum pudding.
Lebkuchen may also very well be the oldest form of cookie known to humankind. The first recorded reference to it appears in an 11th century manuscript at a German monastery in Tegernsee, and if that's not old enough for you, its origins can be traced back even further than that -- all the way back to 2000 BC and the honey and spice cakes of ancient Mesopotamia, India, and Egypt where the practice of creating decorative baked goods for special occasions began. The Greeks and then the Romans continued the practice, baking flat cakes in intricately designed molds. Just such molds have been unearthed by archaeologists from the ashes at Pompeii.
These honey cakes, the precursors of Lebkuchen (whose major ingredient is honey), were prized by the ancients for their presumably magical healing powers. They were often worn into battle or, in Egypt, buried with kings. Honey, after all, was considered a gift of the gods. The Teutonic peoples of pre-Christian Europe likewise valued honey cakes and sought them as protection against any evil spirits who might be about during the winter solstice.
According to Lebkuchen-Schmidt, one of Germany's most famous Lebkuchen makers, honey cakes changed into Lebkuchen in the 13th century. Moreover, since traditional Lebkuchen recipes call for the cookies to be baked on rounds of thin rice paper, which look and taste much like a communion wafer, it's likely that this metamorphosis took place in a monastery. Besides, most monasteries kept their own apiaries and honey was the sweetener of choice -- actually the only sweetener until 400 years ago -- so it seems reasonable to conclude that the monks, who were literate and consequently could read recipes, created the first Lebkuchen.
Thus, early Lebkuchen recipes called for seven spices to symbolize the seven days of creation and early Lebkuchen molds featured Biblical themes. Long after commercial bakeries had gotten in the act, every Lebkuchener still included as part of his equipment a mold depicting the adoration of the Magi.
Later the molds became more secular, featuring knights and noblemen, coats of arms, and outdoor scenes. So, when in 1487 the Emperor Friedrich III invited some 4,000 children to his castle and presented each with a Lebkuchen, they bore his image. Those "Little Emperor" Lebkuchen (Kaiserlein) are still being made today.
By the 19th century elaborate Lebkuchen hearts came into vogue. Today German children are still given them to hang around their necks and nibble whenever they get hungry. During the Christmas season, of course, Lebkuchen are also cut out in the shapes of St. Nicholas, angels and stars.
Though Lebkuchen is made everywhere in Germany, there is no question that the best and most celebrated is made in Nuremberg, where as early as 1395 a bakery devoted to the delicacy opened and where during the Middle Ages a Lebkuchen Baker's Guild was established. It was only natural that production of Lebkuchen first centered there. Situated on the intersection of ancient trade routes from the Orient and surrounded by imperial woods which were home to the bee gardens of the Holy Roman Empire, Nuremberg had all the spices and honey it needed to cultivate a Lebkuchen industry.
That industry moves into high gear during the Christmas season to supply the dozens of stalls selling Lebkuchen at the city's Christmas Market, the largest, most famous, and most authentic in all of Europe. It was there recently, in the great medieval square in front of the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady), as children's choirs, hand-cranked hurdy-gurdies, and brass bands filled the air with Christmas music (much as the legendary Meistersingers must have in the 16th century, when the market was founded) that, fortified against the chilly air by a hot mug of Glühwein, I proceeded to enthusiastically sample the local Lebkuchen decked out for the holidays in all its splendor.
And it was then and there that I began to fully appreciate why Lebkuchen in German means the "cooking of life." I also quickly realized why this quintessential German Christmas cookie has for centuries been shipped to eagerly awaiting recipients in all parts of the globe. "Nuremberg trifles are exported worldwide," says an old German proverb, referring to that fact. I beg to differ. Lebkuchen is no mere trifle.
Authentic Lebkuchen is traditionally baked on a wafer base and may be formed into all shapes and sizes, though bars, as in this recipe adapted from German Life magazine, are obviously the easiest version to make. But even using this simple approach, it is essential that the dough be refrigerated overnight to develop the proper flavor and texture.
1 cup honey
3/4 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup finely chopped almonds
1/4 cup finely chopped candied orange peel
1/4 cup finely chopped candied citron
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
4 tablespoons lemon juice, divided
1 tablespoon allspice
2 cups sifted flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons milk
32 whole blanched almonds, toasted
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
Heat honey and brown sugar over low heat, stirring constantly, until sugar dissolves and mixture is thin. Let cool until only slightly warm and whisk in the egg. Add raisins, chopped almonds, candied fruit, lemon peel, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, and the allspice and mix well. Sift together flour, soda, and salt and stir into honey mixture 1/2 cup at a time until all ingredients are combined. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. Divide dough in half and press evenly into two buttered 9-inch square pans. Brush surface with milk and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes until tester inserted in the center comes out clean. While warm, score each pan into 16 bars, pressing a whole almond into the center of each. Combine powdered sugar, remaining 3 tablespoons lemon juice, and vanilla and brush evenly over bars. Let cool completely before cutting. Store in a tightly covered tin. Do not store in plastic bags.
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