When I got married last year — on a snowy December day just before Christmas — I decorated our wedding cake with dozens of iced gingerbread biscuits in every shape imaginable. I’ve made a lot of gingerbread in my time, and eaten even more. I am a gingerbread connoisseur. But somehow, until very recently, I’d never tried lebkuchen.
The truth is, I thought the difference was semantic. I thought that if you bought gingerbread at a German Christmas market, it was lebkuchen, but if I made it at home, it was gingerbread. I was wrong.
Lebkuchen is indeed German gingerbread, but it differs from British gingerbread in a few key ways. For one thing, lebkuchen is predominantly sweetened with honey, rather than sugar; for another, ginger doesn’t tend to be the dominant flavour. Depending on the region and the baker, fennel, coriander, anise, cardamom and cloves may all be involved. When black pepper is used to bring the heat, the result is the wonderfully named Pfefferkuchen.
Honey and spice is a culinary combination as old as time. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all enjoyed it. But a biscuit resembling the modern lebkuchen first appeared in the Middle Ages. Honey was the principal sweetener for the simple reason that it was all people had. Sugar that originated in India (first encountered by Europeans during the Crusades) may have been available, but it was extremely rare. Spices were rare too, but eastern trade routes were starting to open up. Lebkuchen was probably first created by monks in central Germany, who could lay their hands on such things long before laymen.
No one’s quite sure where the name comes from. Kuchen means cake, but leb- could come from libium (the Latin for ‘flat bread’), the German words for ‘loaf’ or ‘sweet’, or leb-honig, the crystallised honey that was often used for baking. They are also associated with love (liebe) — and hearts are now one of the most common lebkuchen shapes, but that came much later.
Lebkuchen tend to be much softer than British ginger-bread, almost cake-like in texture. Traditionally the dough was left to ferment, which would leaven it naturally, but modern recipes call for baking powder. The exception is Nuremberg lebkuchen, which is unleavened, and baked into biscuits similar to British gingerbread. Nuremberg was well placed to become a lebkuchen city, situated as it was at the crossroads of two major trade routes for spices and surrounded by forests buzzing with honeybees.
Where leavened lebkuchen are simple in design, Nuremberg lebkuchen are often works of art. The stiff dough is pressed into intricate moulds before baking, and then iced or decorated with paper. Mould sizes vary, but can be up to a metre tall. Historically, these gingerbread sculptures honoured nobles and religious figures; a coat of arms was a popular design. They were so expensive to make they were offered in lieu of city taxes, something I may attempt with HMRC. In the 19th century, it became fashionable to bake declarations of love into Nuremberg lebkuchen, and give them as wedding favours.
Hard or soft, plump or moulded, lebkuchen are still a staple of German Christmas markets. Many are pierced before baking, so that they can be hung from Christmas trees as edible decoration. Gingerbread originally found its place at Christmas because it was expensive to make, which made it celebratory. But with its warm spices and sweetness, it seems like a perfect fit.
Germans are apparently losing their appetite for the stuff, however. In 2013, the German office for statistics, Destatis, found that the amount of lebkuchen bought domestically had dropped by 22 per cent over the previous three years. In my view, that is a tragedy (though exports are still going strong, happily).
My recipe calls for both black pepper and ginger, along with a little clove and lots of cinnamon, since I’m going for an overall hum of Christmas spices, rather than one distinct flavour. The dough contains ground almonds, orange zest and of course a copious amount of honey. I’ve opted for the plumper, non-Nuremberg variant, in round and star designs, where the traditional decoration is a simple icing glaze or chocolate dip. If you want to hang your lebkuchen on your Christmas tree, pierce each biscuit before baking, and re-pierce when the biscuits are just out of the oven and still soft.
MAKES 30 BISCUITS
TAKES 5 MINUTES, PLUS RESTING TIME
BAKES 12-15 MINUTES</
75G DARK BROWN SUGAR
ZEST OF 1 ORANGE
250G PLAIN FLOUR
125G GROUND ALMONDS
1 TSP GROUND CINNAMON
¼ TSP GROUND CLOVES
¼ TSP GROUND NUTMEG
¼ TSP GROUND PEPPER
¼ TSP GROUND GINGER
1 TSP BAKING POWDER
¼ TSP SALT
100G ICING SUGAR
JUICE OF 1 LEMON
100G DARK CHOCOLATE
1. Melt the honey, butter and sugar together in a small pan over a low heat. Don’t allow the mixture to boil.
2. Place the dry ingredients in a large bowl and stir together. Zest the orange into the mix.
3. Pour the melted butter/honey mixture into the dry ingredients and stir to combine. Rest the dough in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.
4. Preheat the oven to 160°C, and line two baking trays with non-stick parchment. If you are making rounds of lebkuchen, roll the dough into walnut-sized balls, place them on the baking tray, and gently squish the top of the balls to flatten them slightly. If you are stamping shapes out of the dough, take a ball of dough, roll it out, and cut out the shapes with a biscuit cutter before carefully transferring them to the tray.
5. Bake for 12-15 minutes, until the biscuits are puffed and golden brown. Allow them to cool completely before removing from the tray.
6. To glaze the biscuits, stir together icing sugar and lemon juice, and dip the upside of each biscuit into the glaze, before setting it to one side for the glaze to harden and set. Alternatively, melt a bar of dark chocolate over a bain marie then dunk the upside of each biscuit into it before putting to one side for the chocolate to set.