German Christmas Cookies
It’s in late summer and early autumn when Lebkuchen, the traditional gingerbread cookie appears in the open markets of Germany, especially in Nürnburg. We were there recently as it was one of the city stops on our river cruise and I was so excited to find packages of these moist, soft, spice cookies being sold in the town square of Nürnburg. They’re not cheap! A stack of five 4-inch cookies in a cellophane wrap cost 5 Euros – about $7.50.
I recall a statement by a German friend who said that Lebkuchen is the official taste of autumn. Christmas is never complete without these cookies. “”Nürnberger Lebkuchen”” are just one of many types of German gingerbread. They have been baked in the city of Nürnberg since 1395 by the local monks. The spices had to be imported, so cities along river trading routes had an advantage over smaller, agricultural villages. Nürnberg also had good honey production, and this give them an edge over the commercial production of Lebkuchen, which began in the 14th century. In 1643, the city even created the “League of Lebuchen Bakers”.
Two notes I would make: 1) the batter needs to refrigerated overnight, and 2) The cookies are baked on a thin, edible wafer called oblaten. Oblaten are crisp, white wheat wafers that are available in specialty food shops. If you do not have a specialty food shop that handles oblaten, check with a local religious supply house. Wafers used for communion come in various sizes, including 2 3/4 to 3-inch diameters, and can be used for lebkuchen. Or, check the Internet for “Back Oblaten” and several sources will pop up.
I am grateful to my friend Leonora Baeumler, who shared her recipe with me many years ago. I have altered it a little to use ingredients that are readily available today.
5 large eggs
1 3/4 cups sugar
2 1/2 cups unblanched almonds, finely ground
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons grated orange zest
2 tablespoons grated lemon zest
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon freshly ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
42 to 48 round German baking wafers (oblaten) 2 3/4 to 3 inches in diameter
Icing and decoration:
Halved blanched almonds
1 cup powdered sugar
About 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1. In the bowl of an electric mixer or in a large bowl, beat or whisk the egg with the sugar until light and fluffy. Place the bowl over a pan of simmering water and heat, whisking until the mixture is thick and very warm (about 130*F). Remove from the water bath and continue beating until the mixture is cool.
2. Combine the almonds, flour, orange zest, lemon zest, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, allspice and ginger in another bowl. Stir the mixture into the beaten egg mixture.
3. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
4. Place the oblaten 2 inches apart on the baking sheets. Spread 2 to 3 tablespoons of the cookie dough on each oblaten, spreading to the edges of the wafers. Let cookies stand uncovered for 1 hour before baking so that the top will dry.
5. Preheat the oven to 350*F. Bake the cookies for 15 to 20 minutes, until they are crusty on the upper surface, but still moist in the center. Remove from the baking sheet and cool on a wire rack.
6. In a small bowl, stir the sugar and lemon juice together to make a thin glaze. Place the chocolate into a glass bowl and heat over hot water or in the microwave, stirring, until melted. Decorate with almonds. Frost half the cookies with the melted chocolate and half with the thin powdered sugar glaze.
Makes about 3 1/2 dozen cookies