Sunday, June 12, 2005

Lebkuchen (I)

I should say right off the bat that I have little patience for the people who whinge about Christmas starting earlier and earlier every year. I have always adored the Christmas season, and while I have great sympathy for the people who get depressed during the holidays, I am not among them. Even five or six years ago, during the deepest, darkest days of the divorce (and, trust me, it was an especially grueling divorce, by anyone's standards), I took great solace in family, music, and food, the three mainstays of the various holidays that celebrate the winter solstice.

There is, as it happens, a long history of tension between the forces that wish to extend the season and those that wish to shorten it, and for the most part, the people who wanted to shorten it were the man. In the American South, for example, slaves spent a considerable amount of effort on choosing and preparing the Yule log that would burn for the longest because while it was still burning, they were still on holiday. In agrarian societies generally, the winter is the time when there's the least to do and when people relax, at least relatively speaking, and the people who did all the work wanted to have the longest possible break from their back-breaking lives.

(If you object to the mission creep of Christmas because of the commercialism, I am with you, but you may choose not to center your holiday on spending, and in any case, if the retail-industrial complex wasn't running Christmas ads, it'd be running equivalent ads just because that's what it knows how to do.)

In any case, good Christmas cooks start early. One presumes that the underlying reason for starting early is that many foods served in winter necessarily rely on preserved ingredients, and preservation is done in the harvest season. In any case, it is a fact that any good fruitcake is prepared before Thanksgiving, and some before Halloween. (Oh and for heaven's sake, don't let me hear you groaning about fruitcake and making jokes about bricks and about door stoppers and passing the same family fruitcake, that no doubt came over on the Mayflower, back and forth year after year. Are you really so limited in your imagination as to imagine that what gets sold for $3.99 in the supermarket under the moniker of fruitcake is a reasonable representation of fruitcake? If you were traumatized in your youth by a concoction of sawdust studded with red and green day-glo cherries candied in large quantities of sugar and BHT, then you just don't know fruitcake. Come have a slice of my white fruitcake [or someone else's Jamaican black cake] sometime before you let the actions of a misguided few keep you from enjoying one of the true delights of winter.)

Fruitcake starts early in part because it has flavors that improve with time, and in part because you need a month or more to get all of that great alcohol into it. Other holiday goodies only have the former reason, and some of them start even earlier. Lebkuchen, for example.

I shot the opening salvo in the long annual lebkuchen battle (some metaphors are just too bad to forgo) this past week when I candied some orange peel, most of which will eventually find its way into lebkuchen. Lebkuchen is, you will not be shocked to learn, a German cookie, traditionally served during the Christmas season. Actually, it is more of a family of German cookies, as there are a great many varieties, and some German bakeries sell as many as twenty different kinds of lebkuchen. They are all, at heart, honey cookies or molasses and honey cookies, and the differences between different varieties have to do mainly with the nature of spices and the amount of added nuts and candied fruit.

My father's mother made a version of lebkuchen when I was young. She was from a Mennonite and Amish background, and the Mennonites and Amish (or at least the ones who I'm related to) mainly came to the U.S. from the German-speaking parts of Switzerland, mostly in the nineteenth century. Granny's lebkuchen (she called it "leb cookies" if someone asked her, but to us they were just her Christmas cookies) were largely of the more austere variety, containing relatively few spices and not much in the way of ground nuts, and, I think, no candied fruit. They also weren't really all that good (they weren't bad, either), except for the ones that she put m&ms into before baking. I only ever had them around Christmas, which was usually about three months after she made them, when they'd had time to age and soften properly. They must have been bricks when they had first come out of the oven and cooled. I don't seek to emulate her lebkuchen, but I use a similar recipe when I'm making cookies for a gingerbread house. The recipe is very low in fat and works splendidly for construction.

In fact, most lebkuchen are relatively low in fat, having only a bit of egg yolk and perhaps some ground nuts combined with honey, molasses, spices, and a lot of flour. The proportion of ground nuts and fruit varies widely, however, and in Germany, the best and priciest lebkuchen has on the label what percentage of fruit and nuts has been put into the batter. It can get to around 30%. Lebkuchen are generally rolled cookies, but when they have that much additional material in them, the batter can get fairly sticky, and they are then usually formed on small rounds of edible paper called oblaten.

My preference is to work as much ground almonds (hazelnuts would be even better, but hazelnuts have a tendency to go rancid relatively quickly, so you really can't count on them still tasting good by the time they've softened) and candied orange, lemon, and/or citron peel into the dough as possible while still maintaining rollability.

Cooks who have not yet achieved the state of batshit insanity buy their candied citrus peel from their local grocer or off the Internet. The stuff that you see in the supermarket always seems to me to be too much like the candied red and green cherries that it's sold alongside. (Don't even get me started about the stuff labeled "fruit cake mix.") I am sure that there are reliable online sources of better candied peel and perhaps I could even find it somewhere locally (I have, for example, no trouble finding top notch candied ginger), but because of the whole batshit insane thing, I much prefer to make it myself.

And that's what I've been doing this week. I will not get around to the actual making, rolling, baking, and storing of lebkuchen for a couple of months, but I at least have started on my candied peel. In fact, I finished the candied orange peel yesterday. The lemon peel is still firmly attached to the lemons I bought, but I hope to rectify that situation next week.

In almost all cases, when you use citrus peel, you are after only the zest, or the outermost, colored layer. That is because the pith is almost hopelessly bitter. But when you candy peel, you candy the entire peel, pith and all. So you generally want a thicker peel. I use navel oranges from the grocery store. I reckon that some people prefer to use organic oranges, but the peel goes through a lengthy processing that I reckon removes anything that's overly objectionable. To peel my oranges (I have some pictures of the process, and perhaps if I find the necessary cables and knowledge, I will include some later), I take a sharp paring knife and make two shallow cuts through the peel all the way around the orange. You want your knife to go only as deep as the peel, and you make the two circular cuts perpendicular to each other so that when you're done, you have divided the peel into quadrants.

It is easiest to remove the peel if you start at the end opposite the navel. I don't usually find this part to be especially difficult. Keep in mind that you will eventually be slicing the peel smaller, even if you don't grind it up to use in cookies, and don't be too concerned if some of the peel quarters break. You will end up with a pile of peel quarters and a pile of naked oranges. What you do with the naked oranges is between you and your conscience. I usually just eat them myself, but if I can get away with it, I'll slide a few into the kids' lunches.

I started with about a dozen oranges, which makes a lot of candied peel. In my experience, though, it keeps more or less forever, and you probably won't want to make it more than once a year, so go for a big enough batch to carry you through the lebkuchen and fruitcake season. (If you don't want to make either of those treats, you can dip the finished peel in melted chocolate to make a very nice candy.)

You begin to deal with the pith's bitterness by boiling the orange peel. Put it all into a pot and cover with plenty of water. Bring the water to a boil and boil for five minutes or so. Then drain, rinse, and repeat. You should boil it three times in all. That was as far as I got in the process on the first day, so I put it all in a bowl and left it in the refrigerator.

A couple of days later, I had a few spare minutes in the morning, so I took out the quarters and cut them crosswise into strips about a third of an inch wide. Then I put them back in the refrigerator.

The actual candying of the prepared peel takes a while, so you may want to begin it in the morning. I suspect that the final product will be none the worse if you start on one day and put the whole mess in the refrigerator again to finish another day. I followed neither of those approaches, and my orange peel spent the night in a slow oven, but it tastes great all the same.

You're going to need to make a heavy syrup. I tend to make extra because if you don't have enough you can end up scorching your oranges, and that is a very unpleasant occurrence when you've spent days getting them to the candying stage. Also, you can probably find another use for extra orange flavored syrup. (I used the excess to candy some fennel and coriander seed; I will write about that in my next entry, I think.)

For my peels from a dozen or so oranges, I took four cups of sugar and added two cups of water. I stirred the mess a bit by swirling the saucepan, then I put it over medium heat with the lid on and waited for the sugar to all dissolve. When it had dissolved and was just reaching a boil, I put in the seeds from about six pods of cardamom. I don't know why I did that, since I never had before, but it seemed like a good idea. If I try this recipe again, though, I will put the cardamom in sooner and cook it longer before adding the orange peel because the final product didn't have a noticeable flavor of cardamom, though I did get to chew on some candied cardamom, and that was a good thing.

When the syrup is boiling, slide in the orange peel and cook for a while over medium-low heat. Then turn the heat down to low and cook for a lot longer. Over time, the peel will absorb more and more of the syrup, and the whole mass will become significantly thicker. My orange peel had been cooking for about two hours when I wanted to go to bed, and it seemed like it needed a while longer, so I turned the oven on to about 225 and poured everything out of the saucepan into a glass baking dish and put it in the oven. When I got up the next day, I still thought not enough syrup had been absorbed, so I turned the oven up to 300, and after another hour, it seemed just right to me. I drained the peel in a colander, reserving the syrup, and after another hour, I turned the whole mass out onto a piece of wax paper to dry. When it was completely cool, I put it into plastic bags.

It tastes pretty good, but not so good that it won't taste better ground up in lebkuchen. I will report more on my lebkuchen recipe (different every year, not necessarily by design) and which spices I've decided to use for the '05 vintage when I make the dough. V. is going to Ethiopia in July, so that may turn out to be a good time to make a big mess in the kitchen.


Anonymous Faustus, M.D. said...

"cook for a while"

"cook for a lot longer"

These are the kinds of things only a master can say. I myself am a fraud in the kitchen and need exact minute counts or I'm too scared to go near a recipe.

6:41 AM  
Anonymous anapestic said...

Well, I can't write a haiku, so there has to be some compensation. (See, seventeen syllables, but not divided properly, and there's no third line illuminating the other two.)

I do cook by the seat of my pants a lot, and I know that many people find such an approach frustrating. But I reckon that even you don't take the apple pie out of the oven at exactly the same moment each time, and the way I cook is that same concept amplified by a lot more experience. But then, I'm more than ten years older than you, and I've eaten more than ten times as much, so I've earned it.

12:04 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home