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Over the years, I must've eaten thousands and thousands of Christmas cookies. Lebkuchen were never among them. In fact, until I started hiring German au pairs to help with my kids, I'd never even heard of them. Every year at Christmas, the girls, from Munich, Dresden, Cologne, Frankfurt, Saarbrücken, and Hamburg, would receive care packages from home. Inside were Advent calendars (apparently it's a big thing in Germany), loads and loads of chocolate, and boxes of lebkuchen. Unlike the familiar hard gingerbread, lebkuchen are soft, cakey gingerbread cookies filled with nuts, dried fruit, and honey. They date back to 13th-century monastic Nuremberg, where production is still strong today, and are probably Germany's most famous cookies. So pretty, decorated with a crackling chocolate or sugary glaze, whole almonds, and glacéed cherries, they promised so much but inevitably failed to deliver.
I never much cared for them, preferring the crunchy gingerbread or snappy gingersnaps of my childhood. So tackling a recipe that was clearly not in my wheelhouse was going to be a challenge. I'd have to forget everything I knew about gingerbread cookies (except maybe the spices) and start almost from scratch.
I knew that I wanted a chewy and cakey texture. The first step was using honey and dark brown sugar to sweeten the dough, since those ingredients are humectants, meaning they help retain moisture; regular white sugar tends to harden when it caramelizes, making the lebkuchen way too snappy and crispy. Plus, honey and brown sugar add plenty of their own rich flavor, perfect for spiced Christmas cookies.
I also knew to use more baking powder than baking soda. Baking soda, as you can read in this primer, is ideal for creating a crispy texture—baking soda–heavy cookies tend to rise and then deflate. Powder, on the other hand, will make a puffier cookie that rises and stays risen, leading to more cakey texture.
And I knew I'd have to use more eggs and flour than intuition would tell me, and not as much butter—more flour in relation to the fat means more gluten development (fat interferes with the formation of gluten), which in turn leads to a more doughy result. For flavor, I'd have to use lots of candied fruit (though I draw the line at citron, sorry) and possibly some cocoa (thinking pumpernickel).
All these directions were pointing me toward something I was destined to hate. Until, that is, I tasted the first cookie. The flavors were actually kind of intoxicating—spicy, fruity, nutty, with barely a hint of cocoa, and the texture was not at all unpleasant. In fact, it was pretty good.
So the texture was almost there, the color was nice, and the flavor was good, though it could've used a bit more spice. Then I tasted it the next day and was amazed at the difference. Everything had had a chance to come together. In fact, the texture was better the second day. The cookie had softened a bit and was nicely moist and chewy under the thin crackle of glaze. Not quite perfect, though, since I still wanted more spice and a slightly darker, richer color. For the next test, I upped the spices (cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, allspice, and cardamom—sometimes sold as "lebkuchen spices" in Germany) and switched from Valrhona unsweetened cocoa to Hershey's Extra Dark Cocoa. At first I'd assumed that the fancier cocoa would be the way to go, but it added too much bitterness; the mellow richness of the Hershey's Extra Dark, the everyman of cocoas, was just right.
These had that just-spicy-enough intensity, a lovely deep mahogany color, and that awesome chewy, cakey texture. I was truly surprised by how much I liked them. I was more surprised by how much my son liked them, he of the Toll-House-is-the-only-cookie ilk.
Shaping and Baking
Most of my au pairs would receive store-bought round lebkuchen in their care packages, but occasionally one of their mothers would send homemade bars, which are less time-consuming to make than rounds but no less delicious. I wanted a dough that could be baked both ways, as either rounds or bars. I ended up with a dough that's soft and sticky enough to require significant chilling before forming into rounds, but can be used right away if making bars.
A nice option is to bake half of the dough into bars (a quarter sheet pan is perfect) and the other half into rounds. An important thing to note for bars is that the dried fruit needs to be very finely chopped to make cutting the cookies easier. Dried fruit can be very sticky, though, which makes mincing difficult.
My solution is to chop the dried fruit and crystallized ginger with some of the dry ingredients, either on the cutting board or in a food processor, then pulse them in the food processor with the remaining dry ingredients after that. It's an extra step, but it makes a big difference, since the flour coats the cut surfaces, reducing their stickiness. When rolling into balls, I like to use a 1.75-inch ice cream scoop, moistened with water between scoops. Keep a glass of warm water and a clean towel next to the bowl, then roll the balls with lightly moistened hands. (Be sure to shake out any excess water from the scoop to avoid introducing too much moisture into the dough.)
Traditionally, lebkuchen are baked on little rice paper rounds called oblaten—like communion wafers—to keep them from sticking to the pan. You can buy them online or at specialty stores, but lining the pan with brown parchment works just as well. Avoid the temptation to butter and flour your cookie sheet, and don't use a nonstick pan or cooking spray in place of parchment. The paper acts as insulation from the heat radiating up through the baking sheet—omit it, and the cookies will brown too quickly on the bottom and develop an odd rubbery texture.
When making the glaze, I wanted a pure white version, so I used confectioners' sugar, water, and kirsch, but you can use Grand Marnier or rum or vanilla extract instead. The glaze is best when applied to just barely cooled cookies and allowed to dry until set. And, as I mentioned earlier, these really do get better with a little age, so try to resist the urge to eat them right away. Perhaps you've never had them before, either, but I'm confident they could become your favorite holiday cookies, too.
Get the recipe below, or see it all with our step-by-step illustrated instructions.
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