Germany: Lebkuchen

Lebkuchen cookies are a German tradition consumed all around the world. German Lebkuchen 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.

Food historians generally agree the art of crafting small baked goods into fancy shapes began as a Christmas tradition in Medieval Germany. Lebkuchen (gingerbread) was a highly sophisticated art. The legal right to make these products was carefully protected, and they were sometimes used as Christmas decorations.

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.

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.

German Lebkuchen

1 cup honey
3/4 cup dark brown sugar
1 egg
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

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

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 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.

Recipe courtesy of German Life Magazine.

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