Nothing more quintessentially tastes of a German Christmas than Lebkuchen – gorgeous chewy spicy biscuits covered in water icing or chocolate. The rise of Aldi and Lidl in the UK has made them popular here, but I have loved them since I lived in Germany as a child. Normally I buy a bag or 2, but this year, my first blogging Christmas, I was determined to make them myself. I had also bought a rather fun biscuit tin whist in Cologne which needed filling and was far more capacious than I thought.
However my internet search through German websites for an authentic recipe (sorry BBC Good Food, I didn’t trust your recipe) left me very confused. Every recipe was entitled Lebkuchen but it was obvious some seemed to be for hard Gingerbread biscuits and others seemed to be for the soft chewy spicy biscuits I was looking for.
My woes were increased by that curse of all German baking recipes – the pre-packaged päckchen (little packet) of ingredients that are rarely listed in their raw form along with a much higher count of hard/impossible to find ingredients in the UK. Here they are:
- Lebkuchengewürz (lebkuchen spice) – a pre-mixed pack of spices specially formulated for Lebkuchen
- Orangeaat – orange candied peel (you can mostly only get the mixed variety in the UK)
- Zitronaat – lime and lemon candied peel – a bright delight I wish we could get here
- Oblaten – small round wafers similar to communion wafers on which the biscuit dough is put and then baked
- Hirschhornsalz – Hart’s Horn Salt – a rising agent chemically called Ammonium Carbonate (or Bakers Ammonia) I had never heard of before that all the websites said was a must-have to impart the right flavour and texture to your Lebkuchen
All this was deeply frustrating as I had been in Germany the week before and had I had time to research before we went, I might have stocked up. There are some replacements you can make and some you can make yourself, but Oblaten were certainly nowhere to be found nor was good quality single fruit peel. Thankfully I stumbled on the German Deli website which had all the ingredients I needed plus next day delivery – expensive but a godsave in my time constrained circumstances.
It took searching German wikipedia to finally clear up the confusion (the English version is much shorter and less helpful). It was also full of interesting factlets, including the one that a Lebkuchen baker was a registered trade in communist East Germany, that the biscuit goes back to the Middle Ages and probably originated from Belgium, that as ever in Germany there are multiple regional variations and names, and that the etymology of “Leb” is unknown (though there is conjecture on either old German or Latin origins).
There are 2 distinct types of Lebkuchen
- “Brown” Lebkuchen (also called “Printen”in some parts of Germany) – what we know as Gingerbread – made from flour, honey, treacle, butter, and various spices. It is the basis for Gingerbread houses and those wonderful gingerbread hearts you see in German Christmas markets. The biscuit tends to be hard and very long lasting and is usually decorated with icing, though there is one version (“Dominosteine” – Domino stones) which involve cutting the gingerbread into small squares, putting a layer of marzipan and fruit jelly on top and then covering in chocolate.
- Oblaten Lebkuchen – also know as Nuremberg Lebkuchen or Pfeffernusskuchen – baked on a thin edible wafer similar to a communion wafer called an Oblate and made with eggs, sugar, ground almonds or hazelnuts, flour (though not always), chopped candied peel (sometimes) and spices, and usually coated in icing or chocolate (or both). The dough begins life more like a genoise Sponge mix, though it certainly doesn’t stay that way. The biscuit comes out delightfully light and chewy.
Both types use old rising agents – sometimes Potash but mostly Bakers Ammonia, which in Germany is called Hirschhornsalz. The German name literally means Deer Hoof Salt and harks back to the original source for this compound which involved grinding horse or deer hooves and turning them into a powder. Thankfully the modern chemical industry has done away with that gruesome thought. The salt supposedly imparts a distinct flavour (I haven’t tested this one yet) to the Lebkuchen and whilst they can be replaced with Bicarbonate of Soda (Baking Soda), most of the German recipes I have seen don’t. Both rising agents fell out of use in the 19th Century once Baking Powder was invented by Dr Bird and popularised by Dr Oetker (see my post on this topic from earlier this year) but are still extensively used in Northern European recipes for heavily spiced biscuits.
Both also use Lebkuchengewürz (Lebkuchen spice). This is a combination of spices with cinnamon as the main ingredient, but also allspice, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, coriander and cardomon, aniseed, star anis, mace and fennel.
Just as an aside I always thought Allspice was a spice blend. In German it is called “Piment” which lead to me to find out out it is a the unripe berry from the Pimento tree and was called “Allspice” because when it was first discovered, Europeans thought it was reminiscent of a mix of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. I have been on this earth 53 years and have finally realised Mixed Spice is a blend (of cinnamon, coriander, caraway, nutmeg, ginger and cloves), but Allspice is a unique thing.
Last but not least whilst these are not hard to make, you do need time. Both doughs need resting in the fridge for 24 hours to develop properly especially if you are using Bakers Ammonia. The Oblaten Lebkuchen in particular benefit form this as the consistency completely changes under the influence of the cold and the Bakers Ammonia.
So after all the trials here are the recipes I used
If you can’t get hold of a pre-made packet here is a home made recipe. All weights are for ground not whole spices.
- 35g Cinnamon
- 9g Cloves
- 2g Allspice
- 2g Nutmeg
- 2g Coriander
- 2g Cardamom
- 2g Ginger
- 1g Mace
For the Biscuits
- 75g Orange Peel
- substitute with Mixed Peel if you can’t get hold of this
- 75g Lemon and Lime Candied Peel
- substitute with Mixed Peel if you can’t get hold of this
- 1/4tsp Bakers Ammonia (or 1/2 tsp Bicarbonate of Soda)
- 3 tbsp Milk
- 6 Medium Eggs
- 350g Caster Sugar
- 1tsp Vanilla Extract
- Pinch of Salt
- 15g Lebkuchengewürz (see above)
- 250g Ground Almonds or Hazelnuts
- 250g Plain Flour
- Glace Cherries and Almonds for decoration
For the Water Icing Glaze
- 175g Icing Sugar
- 1-2tsp Lemon Juice
- Water to get to get to right consistency
For the Chocolate Glaze
- 250g Dark Chocolate
- 25g Coconut Oil
- finely chop your candied peel
- add the eggs, milk, sugar and vanilla extract to a bowl
- whisk until thick and creamy (the mixture should temporarily form a ribbon on the surface when you lift the beater out of the mixture)
- sieve the flour, spices and bakers ammonia together
- mix with the ground nuts and candied peel
- fold into the egg mixture until mixed through
- cover with cling film touching the surface and set aside in the fridge for 24 hours
- preheat your oven to 175c /155C fan
- when you go back to the mixture it will have a thick sticky consistency (see below)
- cover a baking tray with baking parchment
- place your baking wafers onto the baking tray (or rice paper or straight on to the parchment if you cannot get hold of either)
- spoon your mixture onto the wafers
- smooth the mixture down (best down with wet fingers as the mixture is very sticky)
- bake biscuits for 18-20 minutes until golden
- allow to cool
- for the water icing glaze
- sift the icing sugar
- mix in lemon juice
- add water to get to a lava like consistency
- either dip your biscuit in the glaze or drizzle over
- for the chocolate glaze
- melt the chocolate and coconut oil in a bowl placed over a pan of boiling water
- dip your biscuit over it
- decorate with nits and glace fruit of your choice or just leave plain
This is the first time I have ever done Gingerbread, and the piping bag and me are not the best of friends, so I am not going to lay claim to any perfection in the execution of these. The Biscuits though are tasty and the recipe is easy to execute. It also gave me a chance to use the Gingerbread stamp I bought in Prague so all in all this was a fun bake.
- 60ml Water
- 75g Honey
- 25g Black Treacle
- 70g Light Brown Sugar
- 70g Dark Brown Sugar
- 25g Lebkuchengewürz (for ease use equal parts cinnamon, cloves and ginger)
- Pinch of salt
- 165g Unsalted Butter
- 1/2tsp Bakers Ammonia (or 1 tsp Bicarbonate of Soda)
- 375g Plain Flour
- cut the butter into cubes
- bring the water, honey, treacle and sugar to the boil
- whisk in the spices, butter and salt
- allow to cool to room temperature
- sieve the flour and Bakers Ammonia together
- stir in the flour and knead to smooth paste
- cover and chill in the fridge for 24 hours
Making the Biscuits
- preheat your oven to 190C /170C FAN
- roll out the dough to 5 to 8mm thickness
- stamp out your shapes
- bake for 5-10 minutes
- allow to cool
- decorate to your taste and fancy using royal icing