12 December, 2013

"Happy Christmas!" From Europe, With Love: Day 12: Weihnachten

Everyone on the planet that knows me well knows that my parents are on a mission for our church in Germany right now for 18 months.  So, you had to know that I was going to include a recipe from Germany...right?  Of course right!

Lebkuchen, also known as Honigkuchen (honey cake) and Pfefferkuchen (pepper cake), is a traditional Christmastime cookie served in most homes in Germany.   Just the history of this cookie alone is quite interesting, let alone the recipe and techniques used to make these.  This is definitely a cookie that is made with love, talent, and patience.  The cookies seemed to, by all accounts save one, have originated with the Franconian Monks clear back in 1296 in a city called Ulm and were first seen in Nürnberg in 1395....this is also back when Germany was "Prussia".  But Nürnberg is by far the more popular place to find these cookies these days.  In fact, they have their own special name there...can you guess it?  Nürnberg Lebkuchen.  What a stretch eh?

I must tell you right away, I spent more time studying out, translating, fact finding, and ingredient searching for this cookie than I have on ANYthing...and I mean ANYthing...else I have ever done on my flog site.  You can take that one to the bank!  I've never come across so many variations, titles, and misconceptions in all of my life!  For every 15 recipes I found at first, I had 15 different lists of ingredients.  I couldn't STAND it.  After all of this searching I came to find out that from region to region, these days, the recipe can and will differ.  Certain ingredients might have been more readily available in say...the state of Bavaria...than they were in the state of Hamburg.  

I enlisted help of German friends far and wide...German nationals living in Ottawa, my parents asking the German people they are serving their mission around, my American friends stationed in Germany, and Germans I know living outside of Germany but still in Europe that might have had an old family recipe laying around.  It wasn't until I did a Google search in German ("Weihnachten Lebkuchen rezepte") that I finally stumbled upon a recipe that included at least ONE thing that the recipe has to have in it to make it "true" lebkuchen.  Candied citron.  That's right folks...it has to be in there or it isn't real lebkuchen.  That candied citron is what gives the dough its peppery flavor.  One other item that it seems must be in there is honey.  It makes sense because the city to the east of  Nürnberg was surrounded by forest lands, wherein many different kinds of flowers and blooms resided.  The best place to find a bumble bee, no?  Yes!  

Two problems may arise with this recipe right out of the gate.  One being that you are most definitely supposed to make these at least 2 weeks to a whole MONTH before you plan on serving them, during which the storage time they experience causes the flavor of them to evolve and the softness of the cookie itself increases.  Or at least, that is the theory.  I've heard tell that the cookies never last long enough to get stored away or...if they do make it into the tin with the slice of orange or apple, they don't end up getting to age longer than...whenever the Germans in the house find the tin.  Now, that I believe!  The second problem is finding the specialty ingredients...and hopefully withOUT having to get them off of the internet.

The 3 things you are going to have to find before you can even think about doing this recipe are back oblaten, lebkuchen spice, and the candied citron.  In Ottawa, I had a devil of a time finding these things even at the German delis in town.  Where I finally found the back oblaten and lebkuchen spice packets was at a place called Swiss Pastries in the Carlingwood area of the city.  They had the 70mm oblaten as well.  Fabulous!  Technically people tell you that you can "make your own lebkuchen spice" but...there is going to be one essential item missing in your own spice mix if you follow lebkuchen spice recipes you find online instead of using the pre-made packet.  Fennel powder/seed.  Apparently it has to be in the mix or both pre-made, store bought spice packets wouldn't have it in there.  But no one that offers a "lebkuchen spice mix" recipe ever includes fennel in it.   I'm not sure why...  It is the only mystery that I have NOT solved about this recipe to date.

Tools & Specialty Items Needed for Lebkuchen

Now that you have half fallen asleep from reading this lengthly novel, we'll get on to the real reason you're here...authentic, traditional Lebkuchen.  My recipe is an adaptation of 3 separate recipes that I used the best ingredients from to create the recipe below.  I hope that you enjoy this recipe and use it for years to come like I know I will!  Frohe Weihnachten!!

**The U.S. measurements appear first followed by the European weights in parenthesis, unless only U.S. measurements were given.  I weighed the amounts out first, then measured them with U.S. measuring cups and spoons.  You can thank me later.  

Weihnachten Lebkuchen (Christmas Lebkuchen)
1/2 tsp. cream of tartar
1 T. rum
3 T. candied orange peel, very finely minced (40g)
1/8 c. candied citron, very finely minced (30g)
1 c. + 4 tsp. almond meal (150g)
1/4 c. + 2 tsp. chopped almonts (50g)
1/4 c. 2 tsp. ground hazelnuts (50g)
1 c. + 6.5 T. flour
1 whole packet of lebkuchen spice mix
4 egg whites
1 c. caster sugar
1/.2 c. honey
1/4 c. + 2 T. raw marzipan (130g)
60-180 whole blanched almonds (3 per cookie around the middle)
30-60 round oblaten, 70mm diameter

Dissolve baking soda in rum and set it aside; putting soda in any liquid activates the soda.

Mix all of the dry ingredients (orange peel, citron, almond meal, almonds, hazelnuts, flour, lebkuchen spice) together and set aside.

In a separate bowl begin to beat the egg white with the mixer on high speed. Slowly add all the sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time. Beat until firm and creamy (about 10 min.).

In a large bowl, mix marzipan with honey on high to smooth it out then add the rum/soda mixture, beating until smooth.  Then fold in 2 T. of the beaten egg/sugar mixture.  Fold until smooth.  Then, alternating, add nut/flour mixture and egg/sugar mixture to the marzipan, mixing thoroughly as you go.

Using a medium pampered chef scoop, top the oblaten and using a flat metal spatula or an offset spatula (a smooth piece of metal), dip the spatula in water then smooth down and outward towards edges of oblaten.  Press 1 or 3 whole blanched almonds into middle of cookie…..or skip them altogether.  Leave in fridge to cool and rest for 24 hours.  This will help develop the flavors.

Click HERE for a video of the technique...  It is spoken in German but I want you to see the technique of portioning the dough and spreading it onto the oblaten properly.  It isn't hard, but you need to see it to truly understand my directions up there.

After 24 hour refrigeration

If you touch these before you bake them they will feel rock hard (thanks to the egg whites being whipped up so well) but rest assured.  This dough turns into a wonderfully soft cookie after baking!

Preheat the oven to 340 F (171 C)

Bake the cookies for about 30 minutes (checking at 20 minutes, and adjusting if necessary to ensure even cookies are cooked to a light golden brown, but mine actually took 30 minutes).  Remove cookies from oven and cool on a wire rack.  Once cookies have cooled completely, glaze if desired with powdered sugar glaze or chocolate glaze.  The 3 ways that are considered traditional ways of serving them are plain glaze, chocolate glaze, and no glaze at all.

Plain Glaze
1 egg, white only
3/4 c. powdered sugar
1 T. lemon juice

Combine egg white, 3/4 c. powdered sugar, and lemon juice in a small bowl. With a brush or a spoon apply a thin, even layer of glaze over the tops of the cookies.  You may need to double this if you decide you want it on all of your cookies.  If you only plan on doing half with plain, one recipe should be sufficient.

Chocolate Glaze
200g of semisweet chocolate
1 tsp. shortening

Melt the chocolate in a small pot over med-low heat. Once chocolate has fully melted, let cool slightly and dip cookie tops in chocolate, brushing off the excess, and then placing them on cookie racks to dry for a minimum of 12 hours. **The fat added keeps the chocolate from turning white or being too hard once it dries/solidifies again.  You can leave the fat out if you wish.**

Once dry, store in an air-tight container.  Three days before opening to serve stick a section of orange or a slice of apple (to keep the cookies moist) in the tin to soften them up.  Serve at Christmas.

I actually slapped a couple of slices of bread on top of those cookies as well.  That was only partially a great idea...even though it served its purpose.

So!....the cookies that I covered in chocolate were decidedly DRY in my opinion whereas, the ones that were covered in plain glaze were beautifully soft and moist; quite the joy to bit into.  I won't lie...when I go to eat one of these, the first thing I do is tear the oblaten off of the back of the cookie.  Sure, they are a part of the cookie but I think by the time I am about to eat one the oblaten has already served its true purpose which was only to keep the cookies from sticking to whatever they were baking on.  As such, I don't feel the need to eat it. 

I was worried when I made these that a WHOLE packet of lebkuchen gewurz would make these WAY too spicy, but the Germans know better than I do!  They were perfect!  They actually help distract your tongue away from how peppery the candied citron is.  This recipe is a perfect balance of sweet and spice, if I do say so myself.  I hope that you try them out because they are certainly worth the time and effort!

I have SO thoroughly enjoyed doing this Christmas series for you!  It was a suggestion from readers that threw me off guard at first but supplied JUST the kind of challenge I love.  Stretching my base of technique and my knowledge of tradition from around the world...  This is a Christmas series I will always treasure!

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