Sunday, December 09, 2007

Perfect Storm Lebkuchen

First, readers, an apology. The last time I posted a lebkuchen recipe, there were omissions. I'm not sure the omissions would have rendered the lebkuchen inedible or even unpleasant, but they would have created something far short of the ideal. Rest assured that I am fully and suitably abashed.

Anyway, I baked up a batch of lebkuchen the other night two weeks ago, and they were the best I've ever made. You'll have to trust me that, prior clerical errors notwithstanding, the best lebkuchen I've ever made is an exceedingly high bar. I was beyond pleased.

I am not so humble as to take no credit for this achievement. There is, clearly, a certain amount of skill involved in the creation of lebkuchen-to-die-for. But there is also a not insignificant amount of chance. The luck factor begins with the candied orange peel. I candy orange peel every year, and I do my best to follow the same procedure, but the results are, shall we say, highly variable. The main problem is that when you candy orange peel and you get to the end of the process, you're treading a fine line between too dry and too moist. If you make the peel too dry, it's like a rock. You can still use it in baking, and it keeps for a good long time, but you can't just eat it. If you make the peel too moist, you run the risk of mold. Candying orange peel is not the sort of thing you do on a whim. Well, okay, I do it on a whim, but there are consequences. It's the sort of process that takes the better part of a day, and while for most of that time you don't have to do anything or even monitor all that carefully, there's still a lot of labor involved. Spending all that time and then coming back a few weeks later to find something green in your bag of orange is disappointing. You will understand that I am using understatement in that last sentence.

Anyway, the orange peel worked this year. It's really just right, and if there's a problem with it, it's that the peel is so tasty -- without being cloyingly sweet -- that it's difficult not to eat it as candy. Fortunately, I made a couple of quarts, so there's plenty for lebkuchen and other recipes with some left over for the occasional nibble.

In addition to having first-rate peel (I have tried, but I cannot bring myself to use the candied peel that comes from the supermarket. I have used it before and gotten very tasty lebkuchen, but lebkuchen are special to me, and they deserve the best I can give them.) to work with, I remembered to check all my stocks before starting this year, and I acquired the spices that I had been missing before.

Still, I almost didn't get the lebkuchen done because I had a devil of a time finding molasses. I will spare you my molasses jeremiad. I'm sure you can figure out for yourself the implications for Western civilization if we continue to be the sort of society where people can't find molasses because the supermarket decided it needed to stock six additional varieties of canned soup instead. I get that people use canned soup more often than they use molasses, but, well, if I go any farther down that road, I'll have to go back and remove that sentence about sparing you my molasses jeremiad.

Anyway. I gathered my spices and everything else. I used large quantities of almonds and candied orange peel, and I made the dough last weekend a couple weeks ago. Then I rolled, cut, and baked it Monday night last week. The recipe made 169 2.5" round cookies. I note the number so that I can say that it is either one more than fourteen dozen, or it's a bakers dozen of bakers dozens. In my case, it was seven sheets of 24 with a bit of dough left over.

Anyway, I did my best to take careful notes and include all the ingredients this time because I want to make them the same way next year.


1 cup molasses
1 cup honey
1.5 cups light brown sugar, packed
1 lemon
1 t. baking soda
3 cinnamon sticks
1 T. whole cloves
2 whole nutmegs
2 whole star anise
2 t. whole allspice
1 t. cardamom seed
1/4 c. cocoa powder
2 eggs
2 ounces crystallized ginger
3 cups whole almonds
2 cups candied orange peel
5.5 cups flour

Combine the molasses and honey in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature.

Zest and juice the lemon and reserve both.

Combine the spices in your spice grinder and grind them. Reserve.

Put the almonds, orange peel and ginger in the food processor and process until very finely chopped. Reserve.

Transfer the honey mixture to the bowl of your mixer. Add the brown sugar and mix until well combined. [Edited to say: add the eggs and mix well.] Add the lemon zest and juice, the spice mixture, the baking soda and the cocoa and mix well.

Add the nuts and fruits and mix well again.

Gradually add the flour to the mixture. You will have to do this part carefully to avoid having flour fly all over the place.

Scrape the dough out of the mixer bowl and onto a sheet of plastic wrap. Wrap well and refrigerate for at least four hours or up to a week.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees

Remove the dough from the refrigerator. Working with a hunk of it at a time, roll the dough about a quarter inch thick and cut into rounds. Bake on lined sheets at 375 for about thirteen minutes. Remove from oven and glaze immediately. Let cool for a few minutes on the sheets, then transfer to a rack to cool completely.

If your mixer is not large or if you don't like lebkuchen as much as I do, you can halve the recipe. The recipe I used as a point of departure is half as big as mine.

The dough does tend to be sticky, so don't be shy about using flour during the rolling.

In the past, I have used a boiled sugar glaze. This time, I made a glaze out of one cup of confectioners sugar mixed with a quarter cup of Grand Marnier. The glaze is not as pretty as the boiled sugar glaze, but it tastes better.

If you like, you can also coat the lebkuchen with a layer of melted chocolate before serving.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I, too, had been looking for molasses. The Giant in Rockville and the SFW both had it. I wonder if people in Rockville bake more than people in Bethesda.

5:31 AM  
Anonymous lindy said...

The molasses thing is just a disgrace- I'm speechless. But then again, I have a feeling that I am about to disgrace myself.Here goes anyway-

I know these cookies are very special and that you have finely honed the whole process over time. But...I really, really hate rolling out and cutting cookies.I'm not sure why- it's not the time, I'm willing to spend endless hours doing other fussy kitchen things-I just don't know.

Thus, I have taken to adapting cookie recipes which are normally rolled and cut into circles, or squares, by forming the dough into round or square logs, chilling it, and slicing it thinly into cookies. It works well for a lot of cookies- do you think it might work for these? (ducks).

12:01 PM  
Blogger Karen said...

*embraces you as a lost sister*

Thank you thank you thank you!

Finally, someone who understand the difference between lebkuchen and "gingerbread cookies"! The honey, the molasses, the traditional spices, they're ALL there!

I've never tried putting cocoa powder IN my lebkuchen before, but hey, I'm willing to try anything once. (Although perhaps not candying my own peel... my procrastinating self will use store-bought candied citron.)

Yay! I'm so happy Uncle Phaedrus pointed me at your blog!

12:43 PM  
Anonymous Jane said...

Sorry, when do the eggs go in? I should be able to figure it out, I know!

6:44 PM  
Blogger anapestic said...

Jane, I usually add the eggs right after the lemon juice and zest, but as long as you put them in before the flour and the ground nuts/fruit, you should be fine.

Karen, I think you'll find the cocoa powder to be a really good addition. I remember the first time I added it, years ago, and it was a revelation. I also bought some candied citron at the store, but I forgot to use it. Candying your own peel is really only for the insane. On the other hand, when I think of what the store-bought citron cost, maybe it's not so crazy. I've already used probably six cups of candied orange peel this season, for nothing more than the cost of a bag of oranges from Costco and a little bit of sugar. Plus a lot of time, of course. (I am studiously avoiding talking about gingerbread and lebkuchen because we don't want me to go there. Trust me. I share your feelings, though.)

Lindy, have at it. I'm sure there are people in Germany who make refrigerator lebkuchen. Of course, in Germany, that would probably be one word. And then, what if you wanted to cut it in star shapes and coat it with chocolate? Still one word. Schokoladenkuhlraumlebkuchensterne. Or something.

6:34 AM  
Anonymous Jane said...

Thanks for the recipe and clarification. I grew up on military bases in Germany and so ate many (many, many, and as often as possible) kinds of lebkuchen growing up. Last year was the first time I tried making it myself (also the first time I made a marzipan stollen, which despite smelling all kinds of wrong as a batter, turned out beautifully). I used the Joy of Cooking's lebkuchen recipe (2nd edition, not the original; and I omitted the candied cherries, which have no place in proper lebkuchen). It turned out fine, but this year I wanted to attempt Elisen-style lebkuchen. I ordered the oblaten online and used a googled recipe. It was a disaster. I think the problem was that the recipe was translated or written by a non-native English speaker so some of the directions were vague (does "mix eggs and sugar together until thick and creamy" mean just well mixed? Soft peaks? There's no other leavening listed, so should I be aiming for light and fluffy, meringue-ish eggs? Am I overthinking this? Sheesh!). I also failed to notice that some of the hazelnuts I used had turned rancid. The result looked unlike any lebkuchen I've ever seen and tasted awful. I threw out the rest of the batter and, after pitching a little fit about expensive, wasted ingredients, started over. I used your recipe this time, adding some hazelnuts (fresh ones) in with the almonds and increasing the percentage of ground nuts to flour. I stuck the oblaten to the bottoms of the cookies after cutting them out. (Unnecessary, I know. But that's how I remember them and anyway I'd bought them and, dammit, I was going to use them!) I baked them last night and they look beautiful and taste good (though not spectacular, as they haven't seasoned yet). But I have a few questions about aging them. Should they be stored at room temp or in the fridge? I'm giving them to friends who've never had lebkuchen before and I want to make sure they're "ripe" when they eat them. I should have started earlier, I know! I'm thinking I'll just attach a tag saying not to eat them until Christmas. Does a week seem long enough for them to be past the "rock" stage?
Any input would be greatly appreciated! Love your blog! Thanks!

10:12 AM  
Blogger anapestic said...

Jane, I love hazelnuts in lebkuchen, but as you noted, they go rancid much more quickly than almonds do, and since I like to sock away a few dozen of the lebkuchen to eat month's later, I stick with the almonds. I still remember, though, from the only time I was in Germany, hiking on the mountain across the river from Heidelberg and seeing people out collecting hazelnuts that had recently fallen from the trees. I was jealous.

By the way, if I had hazelnuts and oblaten, I think I'd add even more nuts and fruit and use less flour. Then I'd take a cookie scoop and heap mounds of dough on top of the oblaten before baking. I'm guessing that's the way the imported ones that I get at Trader Joe's are made. They're spectacular because of the high fruit/nut content.

You kind of have to play the rock thing by ear because how hard and then soft they get varies greatly according to fruit/nut content and the thickness you roll the dough to. But there are ways to hasten the ripening. I believe that the traditional way is to store the lebkuchen with an apple slice/wedge/half. The moisture from the apple works into the lebkuchen and softens them. I have done this in the past, and it does work, but it requires some care. You don't want any of the lebkuchen to actually touch the apple, or they'll get soggy. I think I ended up with a large tin half full of lebkuchen and then a cut apple on a saucer sitting on top of them. And, obviously, you have to check and change the apple regularly, to avoid mold.

I store my lebkuchen in either tins or ziplock bags, always at room temperature. If they get to the level of seasoning you like and you want longer storage and are worried about rancidity, you could try the freezer, I guess, but I don't know how that would work out. I think it's better to eat the ones with hazelnuts relatively soon after making them and use almonds for longer storage.

10:36 AM  

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