Lebkuchen

The German city of Nürnberg (or Nuremberg) is famous for all sorts of reasons, not all of them as benign as its Bratwurst (tiny grilled sausages served in a bun) and Christmas market.
However, in my humble opinion, one the best things that came out of Nürnberg are Elisen Lebkuchen. While ordinary Lebkuchen, a spiced cookie made with honey, have been around since the 13th century in the south of Germany, the ‘Elisen’ variety is made entirely without flour since the 19th century by members of the baker’s guild in Nürnberg.
The fact that it is gluten-free is a side-effect of being made entirely of exquisitly healthy ingredients: nuts, honey, fruit, eggs and spices. Trust me, the recipe I’m sharing here has nothing to do with gingerbread or those horrible hard things that are produced in the shape of hearts for the Oktoberfest in München (or Munich, as you may know it).

My recipe is based on Helma Danner’s in ‘Biologisch Kochen und Backen’ (1986, ECON Taschenbuch), and as with all home-made foods, receipes morph to one’s own tastes over time. Here it is:

Quantities are for around 30 Elisen Lebkuchen, so you need 30 Oblaten, which are circular pieces of edible rice paper, onto which the cookie mixture is placed, dried overnight, then baked the next day.

3 eggs
300 g honey
375 g freshly ground almonds, or a mix of almonds and hazelnuts with skins
20 bitter almonds, or if you can’t get them, use bitter almond essence
120 g candied citrus peel (best home-made from unwaxed fruit, second-best chopped finely from whole candied citrus peel from whole-food shops, but try to avoid ‘chopped mixed peel’, which is utterly tasteless)
2 teaspoons cinnamon
zest of a lemon

For decoration, you’ll need 30 blanched (halved) almonds.

This is where the official recipe stops, and I like to add some of the following:
a pinch or three of clove and maze
seeds of 3 or 4 cardamon pods, freshly ground
a handful of sultanas, soaked in rum, cointreau or lemon juice for a week and drained

Here is what you need to do:

  • Beat the eggs into a froth for at least 5 minutes, then slowly let the honey trickle in while continuing to beat; once the honey is all in, beat for another 15 minutes. Obviously, having a machine that does the beating helps a lot.
  • Chop the candied citrus peel finely.
  • Grind the almonds and hazelnuts (I don’t do that too finely, as I like some coarser pieces – up to taste).
  • Drain the sultanas, if you use them.
  • Mix the spices, nuts, fruit and then stir them into the honey/egg mixture and combine well.
  • The mixture should have the consistency of a soft cake mix. If it is too liquid, add some more ground nuts. If too stiff, add some lemon juice, rum or cointreau
  • If it doesn’t already smell fabulous, add some more spices to taste.
  • Now take a knife and spread the mixture onto the Oblaten (rice papers), around 15 mm thick (not too thin, otherwise it will dry out, thicker if you want to fill your apetite with just one of them). Place them on dry baking trays or racks.
  • Push a blanched almond gently into the centre of each Lebkuchen.
  • Leave the prepared Lebkuchen to dry a little overnight.
  • Next day, bake them in the middle of a pre-heated (170°C) oven for around 25 minutes, or until they are lightly browned. Keep checking the oven, as the change from ‘perfect’ to ‘over-baked, dry and crisp’ can be fast!

Lebkuchen are not at their best eaten fresh. If you can muster the discipline, let them cool, store them in a tin for a week, and the rewards for waiting will be beautifully mingled and balanced flavours.

You can store Lebkuchen for around 8 weeks, especially if you give them a coating that contains the moisture. My favourite is a very thin glaze of icing sugar mixed with cointreau and lemon juice. Some people advocate chocolate….but that’s getting away from being truly ‘Elisen Lebkuchen’ and in my world, it ‘kills’ the flavours.

Because they are so popular with friends and family, and I like to take them on a hike as a healthy snack, I tend to make three receipes at once, sometimes twice, during the dark days of winter.

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