As with most legends surrounding old recipes the origins of this are vague, but it is thought the word "Lebkuchen", German gingerbread, comes from either "lebbe", very sweet in old German, or "libum", cakes in Latin.
Gingerbread was already known in Greece in 2400 BC, while in 1500 BC Egypt it was a favorite known as "Honigkuchen", Honey cake.
Now a German cookie especially popular during autumn and winter, for "Oktoberfest" Hearts and Halloween Ghosts, as well Christmas, New Year and Valentine's Day celebrations, it used to be an offering placed on the graves of Egyptian kings.
Its present incarnation began in Belgium; the recipe traveled to the German city of Aachen around the 13th century where it was named Pfefferkuchen and, as with many things in those days, was further developed by monks and nuns.
During the 14th century it arrived in Bavaria, at a Nuremberg monastery, and by 1409 had acquired a new name; "Lebkuchen".
Gingerbread is still hand shaped and decorated in many bakeries, and made to "One Pot One Bowl" recipes passed down through generations. These are usually fat free, with the main ingredients of Honey, Molasses, Flour, Sugar, Eggs and Mixed Spices remaining the same, but Nuts, Candied Citrus Fruit, Dried Fruits and Marzipan often added.
As well as a chocolate covering instead of frosting.
This is an authentic recipe for a basic hard gingerbread, which not only makes a delicious spiced cookie, but also Valentine's Day and Oktoberfest Hearts, Gingerbread Men, Halloween Ghosts, Honigkuchenpferd, (Honey Cake Horse), and of course Christmas tree decorations.
It is also ideal for building a Hexenhaus, the "Witch's Cottage" of Brothers Grimm "Hansel and Gretel" fairy tale fame, or a Lantern, made from four "glued together" upright Gingerbread Men for example, that just needs a tea light to give not only light but also a delicious spicy aroma. When making these I "glue" everything together with melted chocolate, as it holds really well while blending with the color of the gingerbread, then decorate with frosting. An alternative is using a really thick frosting mix as "cement".
LEBKUCHEN - GERMAN GINGERBREAD - THE RECIPE
3/4 cup softened, but not warm, unsalted butter
1/4 cup brown sugar (cane sugar adds extra flavor)
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon finely grated orange zest
3/4 cup molasses
1/3 cup honey
2 medium eggs, beaten
3 to 4 cups flour (All purpose or 2/3 wheat 1/3 rye)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
Instead of the ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves the same quantity of a spice mix such as Pumpkin or Gingerbread, or an easily made traditional German Speculaas or Gingerbread spice mixes, can be used.) They keep well in a cool store cupboard.
Place butter and sugar into a large bowl and cream the mixture until it becomes light and fluffy.
Add spices and zests, beating until they are incorporated.
Heat molasses and honey until boiling and allow to cool for 10 minutes.
Add molasses mixture to butter stirring constantly, then beat in the eggs and combine thoroughly.
Sift 3 cups flour, soda and salt together and stir into mixture.
Stirring, add as much of the remaining flour as needed to get a soft but not sticky dough.
Shape into a ball and cover with plastic wrap.
Chill at least overnight. The flavors develop, and it also becomes easier to handle. Can be left for three days.
Roll out the dough about 1/3-inch thick.
Using cutters or freehand, cut the dough into whatever shapes you have in mind.
If they are to be Christmas tree decorations or Oktoberfest hearts don’t forget to make holes for the ribbon or twine.
Brush with the lightly beaten white of an egg.
Bake at 350 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes well spaced out on a greased sheet or baking paper, they will spread, and take care not to allow the edges to brown.
Lebkuchen are a sheet cookie that are often served just as they are without any decoration, but are also decorated with frosting, melted chocolate or slivered almonds.
For Oktoberfest Hearts, Halloween Ghosts, Christmas decorations or Gingerbread Men…... wait until completely cooled and decorate with a piped stiff royal icing, made from a mixture of slightly beaten egg whites, a little lemon juice and confectioner’s (powdered or icing) sugar added gradually until the icing becomes stiff and can stand in peaks.
Edible coloring can be added once the mixture has bound together.
For Cookies...for a softer topping, brush with a Lemon Glaze made from
1 egg white
1.1/2 cup sifted confectioner’s (powdered or icing) sugar
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
In a small bowl with mixer or by hand, beat egg white, powdered sugar and lemon juice until smooth.
Brush onto still warm cookies, and if liked they can then be decorated with diced mixed candied fruits and peels.
A little trick that makes sure your stored gingerbread stays, or becomes, soft is to place a sheet of baking paper with some apple skins on top of the cookies, and store them in an airtight container.
Guten Appetit!.......Enjoy your Lebkuchen
All illustrations public domain, and the picture of the monk "Lebkuechner" and his "cookie" molds in a monastery kitchen dates from 1520.