If there is one thing that means it’s the holiday season for it, it is Lebkuchen. Haven’t heard of it? I’m not surprised. Lebkuchen are a traditional German cookie that is a mix between gingerbread and fruit cake…kinda…that is not making it sound good. Let me explain.
When I was little, my German grandma would always come for Christmas. Grandma Anni was a character; a strong, determined woman with a love for pumpernickel bread, chess and a little something sweet always. She always brought my sister and I the same thing: Katzenzungen, a chocolate shaped like cat tongues (it sounds weird, but it’s chocolate, not actual cats’ tongues), a stuffed animal, a giant gingerbread heart and Lebkuchen. When I was younger I never really ate the Lebkuchen, preferring to eat the entire box of chocolate cat tongues in one hour or less, but when I was older I finally ate one and I was in love.
The outside is either glazed with a powdered sugar-based icing or dark chocolate. But the inside is the best part. It is a soft, chewy dark cookie that is studded with chopped almonds, candied citrus peels, ginger and sometimes apricots or raisins. These cookies have been made in some form in Nuremberg since the 14th century. That’s some history. While the ingredients can vary from one region to another, Lebkuchen are almost always soft, cake-like cookies that are made with nuts, citrus and liquid sweetener like honey or molasses. These are not like American gingerbread cookies, but once you try one, you will want to eat them all the time.
I did a lot of research when it came to finding a good Lebkuchen recipe that would deliver the flavor I remember, but also that could be made gluten-free and without the Oblaten (thin wafers that are traditionally used to keep the sticky cookie from sticking to the baking sheet). The wafers are tasteless, but they are hard to get in the states and have always been my least favorite part of the Lebkuchen. This means that things are going to get sticky…
Spice up your life
The spices are a key part of this cookie. Since Nuremberg (birthplace of Lebkuchen) sat at the center of key trade routes, spices were easily accessible there; so, there was a lot of spices to add. You can buy a Germany gingerbread spice mixture, but I made my own. The most important spices in the mixture are: cloves, ginger, allspice, star anise and cinnamon. I also added a little nutmeg, cardamom and black pepper.
Star anise is an aromatic, floral spice that gives these cookies such depth and works so well with the citrus. If you have a hard time finding it, look for Chinese Five Spice powder. Five spice contains star anise, cinnamon, fennel, ginger, and cloves. It works so well in these cookies and it is a great spice mix to keep on hand (five spice squash fries are my favorite!).
Let’s talk nuts.
Nuts are a big part of this cookie. Traditionally, a good one is said to be at least 25% nuts. I may have gone a bit nutty (pun intended), but I upped the nuts even more in this recipe. Not only did use chopped blanched almonds AND hazelnuts, but I also used almond and hazelnut flours.
My dad pulled out his old German baking book and showed me the recipe for Lebkuchen (in German so I guessed and then he told me what it actually was) and it called for using both almond and hazelnut flours. Hazelnut flour can be a little pricey, but it is worth it. Hazelnuts have such a buttery flavor, which is perfect for this butter-less cookie!
Nut flours also add moisture, which we always want and need. If you have a good, high powered food processor of blender, it is easy enough to make your own nut flours. Buy roasted and UNSALTED hazelnuts or almonds (about 1 to 2 cups worth), throw them in the blender and blitz until you have a fine powder. It’s ok if it is not superfine.
Citrus is an another key part of this cookie’s unique flavor. The citrus flavor comes in two forms: candied lemon and orange peel and citrus zest or oil. It just so happened that I didn’t have any oranges or lemons in my house so I used lemon and orange extracts (thank you amazon). If you do have an orange and lemon in your kitchen, then use the fresh zest.
I was able to pick up candied lemon and orange peel from my local specialty foods store, but you can also get them from Whole Foods or Amazon. I wouldn’t skip on these guys since they provide a little texture in the final cookie.
It is definitely a lot of citrus, but that citrus and spice combine to make a special aroma and flavor that is quintessential Christmas for me.
The final zesty flavor comes from crystallized (or candied) ginger. I always have this in my cupboard because I eat it after every meal, but it is super easy to find at Whole Foods, Trader Joes and, of course, Amazon.
Let’s make some Lebkuchen (Grandma Anni, this is for you)
(Tip: the easiest way to make this dough is to prepare your dry mix, wet mix and chopped nuts, ginger and cranberries so they’re all set and just need to be combined)
3/4 cup honey (I used Organic Raw honey)
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 large egg
1/2 - 1 tsp each orange and lemon extracts
3/4 cup blanched almonds
1/2 cup candied ginger
3/4 cup gluten-free measure-for-measure flour
3/4 cup hazelnut flour
3/4 cup almond flour
1/4 tsp baking soda
2 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp ginger
1/2 tsp cloves
1/2 tsp allspice
1/4 tsp cardamon
Pinch of Chinese five spice powder (if you don’t have it, don’t worry)
Pinch of black pepper
Pinch of kosher salt
1/4 cup each candied lemon and orange peel
1/3 cup dried cranberries, roughly chopped
1 cup powdered sugar (make sure it is gluten-free; Wholesome Sweet brand is my favorite)
6 tbsp apple cider or brandy
It’s mis en place time. In a food processor, place the blanched almonds, tear up the candied ginger into smaller bits before you add it to the food processor. Time to chop. Pulse to get things going and then let process for about 2 minutes. You want a pretty fine chop, but you don’t want flour. Err on the side of caution and go for bigger chunks if you aren’t sure. We all love chunky nuts.
In a medium sized bowl, whisk together the flours, spices, baking soda and salt, breaking up any lumps in the nut flours. Add the chopped citrus peel, almonds and ginger to the flour mixture. Give it all a good mix with your hands. Set aside.
In a small saucepan, combine the honey and brown sugar and heat over medium-high heat. Bring these just to a boil; you want the mixture to be smooth and all the brown sugar to be dissolved. Pour into a large heatproof bowl and let cool for 15 to 20 minutes.
Once the honey mixture has cooled slightly, add the orange and lemon extracts and whisk just to combine. Add the egg and whisk again until fully incorporated.
Add the flour mixture and cranberries to the honey mixture and fold to combine. t will be sticky, but that’s what we want. Cover with plastic wrap and put in the fridge to chill overnight. Don’t skip this; the dough needs time to come together.
Next day: Preheat oven to 325F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Grab your dough out of the fridge. It will still be sticky, but easier to work with. Using your fingers, roll 2 tbsp balls of dough and then flatten them into 1/4 in discs. Place on the baking sheet about 2 inches apart.
Once all your desired doughs are rolled, bake for 14 minutes (the edges are golden brown and the tops are just beginning to turn golden brown).
While the cookies are baking, make your glaze. Place the powdered sugar in small bowl, add the apple cider or brandy and whisk until smooth.
Once the cookies are done, take them out and immediately coat with glaze. Some of the glaze will be absorbed so you can always add more once they’ve cooled slightly.
Let the glaze set for 30 minutes before tucking in. They keep for a week in an airtight container and the dough keeps in the fridge for a week as well!