I felt the need to bake yesterday evening. I was pretty beat: I was running on a week of nights with five or fewer hours of sleep, and when I'd taken L. to see the late afternoon showing of Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit at one of the local megaplexes (really: one million screens!) I had slept through perhaps eighty percent of the main feature. Still, when we got home, at 8:00, when I should have been planning a way to get to bed as early as possible, I decided to bake the lebkuchen.
I should here confess that the recipe that appears in the preceding post is really a double recipe. And the recipe that it is a double of already produces a generous number of lebkuchen. I have heard from people who have made some of my recipes, but I don't really expect that anyone is going to make the lebkuchen. If you know about lebkuchen, you've already got your own recipe, and if you don't, you probably have plenty of other Christmas cookies that you're perfectly content with. And while I think that these cookies are very good, I'm not sure how much they appeal to anyone who doesn't have a history with them.
When I was a child, my paternal grandmother made vast numbers of what she called "leb cookies" for Christmas. Granny was a frugal housekeeper, and her lebkuchen were, unsurprisingly, on the spare side. They did not have much of a spice presence, and if there were nuts or dried fruit in them, it's news to me, and I suspect that she may have used all molasses, and no honey, but it would not have been Christmas without them. She did make them a long time in advance and then store them in giant containers so that by Christmas time, they were plenty soft, and she did press m&ms into some of the cookies, and, well, they were cookies, so all the grandchildren liked them.
Lebkuchen would doubtless have faded from my consciousness had I not married a woman who had a German mother. The first time I ever made lebkuchen, I used my then-wife's recipe, which is very much like the recipe that I pulled from the Internet last week and then improved upon to make this year's lebkuchen. The ex rolled her dough out and then used a rotary cutter with a scalloped edge to cut her lebkuchen into diamond shapes. I have long since abandoned that process in favor of a round cookie cutter, but I still glaze most of my lebkuchen the way that my ex and her mother (but not her mother's mother; when the ex's mother [who had died long before I met the ex] married an American military officer and then came to live in the US, she didn't have any of her mother's recipes, and, if memory serves, she got her recipes for both lebkuchen and springerle from one of the standard American cookbooks. I want to say that it was Betty Crocker, but I would then be so far out on a limb of speculation that, well, you can complete the metaphor as you see fit.) did, with a simple boiled sugar glaze. Why? I'll tell you why: tradition! (I did, in fact, have the lead in my fifth grade class' production of Fiddler on the Roof, but we can perhaps leave the discussion of how that his influenced my later life for another time. I will say, however, that I was as good a ten-year-old Tevye as you're likely to find anywhere.)
Anyway, I'll record here the recipe for the glaze I used, but if you really go so far as to make the lebkuchen yourself, you may want to consider other options. Maybe some confectioner's sugar with enough Grand Marnier stirred in to make something spreadable.
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup confectioner's sugar
Put the granulated sugar and water in a saucepan, and cover it with a tight lid. Put over a medium-high to high burner for several minutes, or until the sugar has entirely dissolved and the mixture is boiling. Cook to 230 degrees (F), then remove from heat. Stir in the confectioner's sugar.
This glaze is not the easiest thing in the world to work with. The sugar begins recrystallizing almost immediately, and after every two or so sheets of cookies, you'll need to add a little water and bring it back to a boil to make it clear again (if it ever was clear), but I have done it so many times that fussing around with the glaze is kind of fun for me.
When you're ready to bake the lebkuchen, start by preheating your oven to 400 degrees. I have finally put a thermometer in my oven, so that I can tell you that my oven was mostly around 390 during the baking. It flirted with 400 on occasion, and it was sometimes down around 375. I have made the cookies plenty of times when I had an oven that really did maintain 400, but as long as you're dealing with a fairly hot oven, you should be okay. You will simply need to calibrate your baking time. The recipe I had said 10-12 minutes. I found that if I did not open the oven at all during the baking, the cookies would be properly done at exactly 12 minutes when baked on half-sheet pans. If you are using dark cookie sheets or very thin cookie sheets, I would recommend that you preheat your oven to 375 to avoid scorching the bottoms.
You will want to use as many cookie sheets as you have. I got out four half-sheet pans, and that worked very well. Once the assembly line got up and running, there'd be one pan next to my pastry marble to receive the freshly rolled and cut dough, one pan baking in the oven, one pan sitting on top of the stove with the cookies out and either just glazed or waiting to receive glaze, and a fourth pan cooling on hot pads on the kitchen table. When the oven goes off, the fourth pan moves farther along the kitchen table, the glazed cookie pan moves onto the hot pans, the oven pan moves on top of the stove, and the raw dough pan moves into the oven. Then I glaze pan two, and remove the cookies from pan four to the giant cookie bowl, and rinse and re-oil pan four so that it becomes pan one again.
I am pretty good at rolling out and cutting lebkuchen, and I can keep all four pans going and still have time leftover to worry about whether the rest of the house is clean enough for the cleaners who are showing up the next day. It takes me about three minutes to roll out and cut the two dozen cookies that go on each sheet pan. But if it takes you longer, just relax. There are only two tasks that are time sensitive: you have to get the cookies out of the oven when they're done, and you have to glaze them while they're still hot so that the glaze will harden correctly.
Anyway, when you're ready to roll out your dough, take the bowl out of the refrigerator and put it on the counter next to your rolling surface of choice. I use an ice cream scoop to remove a blob of dough at a time, but you can use a heavy spoon, assuming both you and your spoons are strong. The dough is very dense, especially when it's very cold.
You will want a substantial amount of flour to assist you in the rolling process. In the past, you may have heard dire warnings about not using too much flour when you were rolling out dough so that you wouldn't end up with something too tough. This warning is unnecessary with lebkuchen. No matter what you do, the lebkuchen are going to be as tough as leather 20 minutes after they're out of the oven, and some excess flour is not going to make any difference in how quickly they soften up once they're in storage. You obviously don't want huge amounts of flour on your cookies when they go into and come out of the oven, but unless you're really overdoing it, the flour will disappear during the baking. If you're worried, you can brush the excess flour off the tops before you put them in the oven.
I roll my lebkuchen to a thickness of about 1/4 inch, and I use a round cookie cutter with a diameter of two inches. You can use a larger cutter, and you can use any shape you want; stars are also traditional. With a two-inch cutter, you can very comfortably put two dozen cookies on a single half-sheet pan. You will want to dip the cutter in the flour before you start cutting the cookies out. I generally push the cutter down, rotate it a quarter turn, pick it up, shake the cookie out onto my other palm, and repeat. When I have eight cookies in my left hand, I put down the cutter and use my right hand to transfer the cookies to the half-sheet pan. In that way, I can fill a sheet with three series of cuts. I take it as a matter of personal pride to be able to pull out the right amount of dough to roll into a sheet that is just large enough to cut out twenty-four cookies, but I advise you not to worry about such matters unless and until you are as batshit insane as I am, and, believe me, that takes years and years of concentrated effort.
You want, of course, to have the oven open as little as possible. If you're dexterous, you can pull one pan out of the oven while you put the other one in. I was worried about temperature, so I pulled a pan out quickly, then shut the oven door to let it get back up to temperature while I glazed the batch that had just come out of the oven. This practice doubtless cost me a few minutes, but since I turned out sixteen dozen cookies in 2.5 hours, including preheating, glaze-making, and cooling times, I reckon that I did okay.
That said, these lebkuchen were not the best that I've ever made. Tasting freshly baked lebkuchen is a bit like tasting beaujolais nouveau: you have some idea of what you're going to end up with, but you don't really know unless it's a total disaster. And ten minutes out of the oven, these lebkuchen were pleasantly gingery and with a good overall flavor. Twenty minutes out of the oven, they were mildly spicy rocks. They will develop into fine cookies. They will be this year's lebkuchen ordinaire, and my ordinary standard is pretty high. Still, I felt the absence of allspice and cardamom, and I would have liked more cocoa powder. Above all, I wanted a much more decadent amount of almonds and candied peel. I suspect that the coming weekend will find me making a batch of special lebkuchen. If I can, I will find some candied citron to go along with the candied orange peel. And I will double the proportion of almonds and be absolutely profligate in my use of spices. I will also cut them somewhat thicker, and when they have seasoned for a month or more, I will coat them with dark chocolate. Every other cookie within miles will perish in a wave of bitter envy, and I will laugh. Did I mention that I haven't had much sleep lately?
Right now, I have all of my lebkuchen in my very biggest mixing bowl, which barely holds them. Soon I will transfer them to individual cookie tins, some of which I will hide in unlikely places. Lebkuchen probably don't keep forever (and if you make them with hazelnuts instead of almonds, the nuts will turn rancid within a few months or less), but I have yet to find a counterexample. They will mostly all be eaten during the holiday season, but I will come upon the last hidden tin sometime next spring when the flavors will have evolved and intensified, and it will be a wondrous thing.