Friday, October 14, 2005

Lebkuchen II

Lebkuchen, friends, is not an exact recipe. Lebkuchen is a state of mind.

Ok, I don't have any idea what that means, and it is possible (but only possible, mind you) that my judgment and mode of expression might be affected by last night's events, which included working until after 9:30 and not getting home until 10:30 and deciding (having had, you must realize, no more than five hours of sleep on any of the prior three nights) that it was time to do some cooking and the cooking that I had to do was to make the lebkuchen dough so that the girls and I could bake some lebkuchen the next night, even though lebkuchen dough is not really a quick and easy thing to throw together, particularly if you're working with a weak, cheap-assed food processor that you're only working with because your culinarily territorial partner (who, by the way, has run off to Ethiopia to do some consulting during one of your very busiest work weeks) insists that your Cuisinart is superfluous because his Hamilton Beach has always worked well enough for him so that you spend five minutes watching the almonds and the candied orange peel whirl around and around the food processor bowl without getting actually, you know, processed and then give up and chop them quarter-cup by quarter-cup in the spice grinder. Not that I'm upset or anything. Because I am not easily nonplussed, you know. If (and I'm not saying this actually happened, even though it did), for example, I were to come home and to start assembling my ingredients, and I were to pull out my ziplock bag of candied orange peel, which I had perhaps not dried as thoroughly as I usually do, and I were to notice some unusual coloration on the peel and I were to open it up and take a deep whiff and I were to come to with the dog licking my face and I were to realize that mold had taken possession of my beautiful, beautiful orange peel, I would simply go to my backup batch of orange peel and use that. The screaming and the tears and the general abuse heaped upon various deities and their parentage would not be evidence of my nonplussedness. Nosiree, Bob: I am one cool customer in the kitchen.

Anyway. Whether lebkuchen is a state of mind or not, it is not a recipe simply because it is so many recipes. I have read that there are bakeries in Germany that sell upwards of twenty different kinds of lebkuchen. I, of course, would eat any and all of them. As far as I can tell, the difference has mainly to do with the spice mixture and the percentage of dried fruits and nuts incorporated (the common denominator is that they're all made with honey). There is not a lot of fat in lebkuchen, and the more fruits and (especially) nuts you introduce to the dough, the more quickly the finished cookies will become soft enough to eat. If you don't add any nuts or fruit, then you have an excellent dough for making a lebkuchen house (And let's settle that issue once and for all, shall we? The house that Hansel and Gretel were eating from and that was owned by a witch who had unfortunate tastes was a lebkuchen house. It gets translated as a gingerbread house, but that is a LIE. Are we clear on that?) whose roof might very well still be intact the next time you have to replace the twenty-five year shingles on the roof over your head. At the other end of the scale are your Nurnberger lebkuchen or your oblaten lebkuchen, which can have fruit and nut contents upwards of 30% (you see the percentage proudly displayed on the packages of the richer varieties in the stores when they go on sale in the fall). Oblaten lebkuchen get their name from the thin rice paper wafers that they are baked on. You use those because the dough has too little flour to roll out. They are fantastic, but I very much enjoy the process of rolling, cutting, and baking the cookies, so I try to come down somewhere in the middle, putting in as much fruit and nuts as I can while still keeping the dough rollable.

All lebkuchen go through a similar post-baking evolution. When they are first out of the oven and not entirely cool, they are soft and good, but the spice flavor is not fully developed. Once they cool entirely, they are rocks, and if you need to eat them, you'll be dunking them. Then over time, the begin to soften, and the flavors develop. The length of time they take to return to edibility is a direct result of the amount of fruit and nuts you put in them, and my lebkuchen are usually rich enough that they're good to eat within a week or two. The dough I made last night will make cookies that may take a bit longer because I had fewer almonds in the house than I thought I had, but they will still be fairly rich cookies.

Lebkuchen 2005

1 cup molasses
1 cup honey
1 lemon
3 cinnamon sticks
1 T. whole cloves
2 whole nutmegs
2 whole star anise
3 T. cocoa powder
2 eggs
1 ounce crystallized ginger
1.5 cups whole almonds
1 cup candied orange peel
5.5 cups flour

Either put the honey and molasses in a saucepan and bring to a boil, or put them in a four-cup glass measure and microwave for three minutes on high. Either way, let them cool.

Grate the peel from the lemon and juice the lemon. Grind the spices in your spice grinder. Chop the ginger, almonds and orange peel fine in the bowl of your food processor.

Put the molasses and honey in the bowl of your stand mixer and turn it on to the lowest speed. Add the peel and juice.

Add the remaining ingredients, stirring well after each addition. When you get to the flour, add it a cup or half-cup at a time. If you don't have a splash guard, learn to be very careful and quick with the on-off switch. When the flour is all incorporated, cover the dough with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least four hours and up to a week.

You may not be able to get all of the flour into the dough. I lost track last night of how much I was putting in, and I just kept adding half a cup at a time until the dough was right. You don't want it to be too wet to roll. But you don't want it to be too dry, either. It should still be a little bit sticky when you're done with it. It will get less sticky under refrigeration.

There is, of course, nothing sacrosanct about the spice mixture that I've put in this recipe. If I could have found the allspice last night, I would have added some. Ditto the ground cardamom, but all I had was whole, and I didn't feel like sitting there and picking the seeds out of the pods. I do think you want to be generous with the amounts of the spices. I will usually add more spices and more of each spice than is called for in a recipe, and every year the spice mixture is different, as is the amount of nuts and fruit. It's always good, but some years you have to wait longer for it to be good than in others. Don't, however, forget the cocoa powder. It is not an ingredient in most lebkuchen recipes, and I didn't include it in my own until six or seven years ago when I realized that the lebkuchen were calling out for it. You don't have to use three tablespoons, though. You can use two or four. Three just seemed right last night, but of course, my mind was still a bit addled by lack of sleep and presence of mold. Still, I'm pretty confident that when they're baked and glazed and (maybe) covered with chocolate, they'll be great. I'll let you know.


Blogger Sangroncito said...

I'm licking my chops!

6:59 AM  
Anonymous lindy said...

I want to see what these look like; I'm pretty sure I've never had any. I'm unfamiliar with this whole area of food lore. They sound great. Is this a family recipe?
How long do they keep after they mature?

1:14 PM  
Anonymous anapestic said...

Lindy, I'll try to address those questions in my next post, which I'd be writing now, except that I left my camera downstairs, and I'm too lazy to fetch it to show the finished product.

8:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I grew up in Ephrata, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. My mother, who spoke Pa. "Dutch" made leb cookies that I really enjoyed, especially to "dunk". Several years ago at the Green Dragon, a woman from the Lebanon area sold these, and they were like the ones I had as a child. Thanks for sharing your recipe and thoughts.

6:03 PM  
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10:08 PM  
Anonymous Michalsuz said...

Looking for a Nurnberger Lebkuchen recipe, came across your blog - the pleasure of it! Great writing - I am enchanted!

4:24 PM  

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