Lebkuchen and the winter holidays go together like bread and butter. For those that don't know, Lebkuchen is German gingerbread. You can't build little houses out of it, as it's much softer than the cookie-like gingerbread we have here in the states. In Europe and especially Germany and Austria, they start selling all kinds of Lebkuchen in October. It comes in all kinds of shapes, such as bells, Christmas trees, and most commonly, palm-sized circles. You can get them coated in chocolate, glazed with sugar, filled with jam, chock full o'nuts, or many other ways. My personal favorite are the round ones coated in milk chocolate with the egg-white crisp at the bottom. Before baking the gingerbread, they put whipped egg-whites at the bottom of the pan and when they come out of the oven the gingerbread has this white crispy disk on it's bottom. It gives it a nice little crunch.

One can find Lebkuchen outside of Europe pretty easily. Just go into any German deli or European market around the holidays and I'm sure they'll have some. I suggest eating them with a great big mug of hot cocoa.

I love cookies with character, and these have it in spades. I received the most wonderful cookbook one Christmas many years ago.1 It was full of small things that tasted marvelous. Well, I really enjoyed the lebkuchen recipe, but decided that I wanted to make it a little more, shall we say, vigorous?

In the end, I came up with this modified recipe. It’s a potent cookie. Usually I make little gingerbread people, 2 inches tall. I’ve decorated them in the past with brown royal icing for faces and buttons, and piped two green holly leaves with red holly berry dots at the neck as a sort of collar. I’ve also made giant 8 inch tall bears and teeny tiny half inch animal shapes, and all sorts of things in between. As I said, it's a potent cookie, and the smaller shapes tend to be more popular.

These get better with age. The honey absorbs moisture and the spices merge together, and the cookie becomes wonderfully soft and chewy. I try to make these at least a month before I need them. Two weeks is the minimum, really.

These cookies keep for many months in an airtight container at room temperature. They are strong, and a few go a long way for most people. However, I've never met someone who found them too strong, not even children. The cookies are excellent with a cup of coffee or tea or a tall, cool glass of milk. They dress up a cookie plate (often whimsically), and make terrific hostess or holiday gifts. And kids love 'em, especially the animal shapes (I know this from experience).

yclept's lebkuchen

2/3 c. honey
1 c. sugar
2 oz. butter (half a stick of the real stuff)
1 tbsp. lemon juice
2 tsp. lemon zest, finely grated
1 tbsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. each: ground cardamom, cloves, nutmeg
1 tbsp. ground ginger
2 tsp. fresh ginger, finely grated
1 tbsp. ginger juice (finely grate a quantity of ginger, and squeeze it for the juice)
3 c. flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 c. (1.5 oz.) blanched almonds, finely ground (if necessary, use some of the flour when grinding to keep the almonds from getting oily and sticking together)
1 large egg
1 oz crystallized ginger, finely minced or grated
Glaze: (Note: you may need as much as double this quantity of glaze depending upon if you glaze both sides of the cookies. Also, very small cookies use proportionally more glaze than larger ones. I glaze both sides, and make very small cookies, and go through as much as triple the glaze)
1/2 c. confectioner’s sugar
4 tsp. brandy or cognac (You wouldn’t think it, in such a pungent recipe, but the quality of the brandy does matter. A decent brandy adds unbelievable fragrance to the finished cookie. I’ve had amazing results with a really superior cognac.)

Making the cookies

Melt the honey, sugar, and butter together in a small saucepan over medium heat. When melted together, remove from heat, and stir in the lemon juice, zest, and spices. Scrape into a large mixing bowl and let it cool until it is no longer hot.

Once the honey is no longer hot, mix in the ground almonds, egg, and crystallized ginger.

Sift the flour, baking powder and soda, and salt together. Stir the flour mixture into the honey mixture in thirds, mixing well after each addition.

The result will be a smooth, sticky dough. Shape the dough into a brick with floured hands, and wrap it in plastic wrap or waxed paper. Chill for 4 hours or so.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line your cookie sheets with parchment paper.

Roll out the chilled dough on a well floured surface. The chilling will help, but the dough will still be sticky. If making small cookies, roll out smaller portions of the dough and keep the unused portions chilled in the meantime. Gather together the scraps into a ball and re-roll them until you’ve used up all the dough. If you can chill the scraps a bit while working on a different portion of dough, you’ll use less flour.

The smaller the cookie, the thinner the dough can be. I usually roll it to 1/8 of an inch thick for very small cookies, and 1/4-3/8 of an inch thick for very large cookies. Adjust your baking time if you go thicker. Flour the cookie cutter(s) well every time you use them. The dough is very soft and it’s easy to tear or warp shapes, especially as the dough warms up and gets softer. Of course, warping the cookies can lead to dancing gingerbread people….

Bake at 350°F until the cookies begin to brown on their edges, and are a deeper tan over all. If they are very small, they will turn a deeper shade of brown over all. Baking times are entirely reliant on how big the cookies are, so keep an eye on them. It’s about 8-10 minutes for small cookies. Don’t underbake thicker cookies or they can have a bit of a raw flour taste. Let the edges get darker if necessary.

Finishing the cookies

Mix up the glaze and brush it on the cookies while they are still warm. Now, this takes a bit of practice. If you apply the glaze to extremely hot cookies, the brandy will boil and the glaze will be full of bubbles. If you glaze a cooled cookie, the glaze will dry white, like royal icing. However, if you catch the cookie still very warm but not hot, the glaze will melt and form a smooth, glassy coating. This is the stage to shoot for when glazing the tops of the cookies. If you do massive quantities of tiny cookies, it will be impossible to catch the perfect glazing temperature for all of them. Don’t worry; no one will care. They’ll be too busy shaking their heads at your tiny cookie madness while stuffing their faces.

If you decide to glaze the bottoms of the cookies as well (I do), wait until the tops dry first. You won’t get that lovely, smooth glaze, but that doesn’t matter for the bottom.

If the glaze gets too thick or isn’t brushing easily, add a few more drops of brandy, and stir until the glaze smooths out again.

Decorate if desired with royal icing, and make sure the icing is dry before you store the cookies. I don’t bother anymore as I don’t like having to worry about messing up the icing during storage. Alternately, you can always decorate them later. How about having a decorating and eating party with small children once the cookies have softened?

Letting the cookies mature

Now, here’s the kicker. If you taste a cookie right after baking, it will be really hard, crunchy, rather harsh. You’ve got to put the cookies into an airtight plastic container for at least 2 weeks. A month is better. Put them all into a big tub. Layer them so that they are all reasonably flat. Larger cookies will bend and even break under the weight of other cookies as they soften. I usually use the parchment paper I used to line the pans and separate the layers for more support when I’ve got big cookies. I don’t bother for tiny ones.

Add a few pieces of apple to the tub if you’re in a rush; the scent of the apple will perfume the cookies as well as provide extra moisture. I always use apple, even if I’m not in a rush, because I love what the apple does for the fragrance of the cookies. The funny thing is that the apple ends up drying out and absorbing the scent of the cookies in return. The dried, leathery apples become a tasty treat too! And no, they don’t go moldy; the cookies are too desiccant.

One warning, the cookies directly beneath the apple pieces tend to get soggy, so put a dish or a thickly folded up piece of parchment paper under the apples, and make sure the apple wedges are skin side down.

Stick the tub in a corner somewhere and wait. And wait. After at least two weeks, open it up and marvel at the luscious lemon tinged scent of honey and apple that floats out. Sink your teeth into a chewy cookie, and then another. Realize that they are worth all the work and the wait.

1 The cookbook? Sweet Miniatures: The art of making bite-size desserts by Flo Braker, William Morrow and Co., NY, 1991. A wonderful book that not only tells you how to make some of the most delicious treats I’ve ever tried, but the whys and wherefores of the techniques, so you can modify them. Favorite recipe from this book has got to be the Sweet Cheese Puffs. Mmm… delectable.

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