Some things are impossible to buy in the U.S. and one of those things seems to be German gingerbread cookies. Sure, we sell many varieties of so-called gingerbread cookies in this country, but none come anywhere close to the soft and intriguingly spicy variety I enjoy in Germany, called Lebkuchen.
I’m not much of a baker, so I went to Heidelberg Pastry Shoppe here in Arlington, Virginia and bought what looked like authentic Lebkuchen from Wicklein. It wasn’t until I got home that I noticed the awful list of ingredients, including high fructose corn syrup and other highly processed sweeteners, guar gum, soy lecithin, potassium carbonate, not a trace of real butter, only powdered eggs, and a cheap alternative to marzipan, called persipan (made from apricot kernels).
It was only then that I realized that this box of cookies is formulated for export, which is why the ingredients are only listed in English and French, but not in German. As with Nutella, Orangina, some beers and other European foods that Americans have come to enjoy, the manufacturers have cheapened the ingredients for export, hoping Americans won’t notice the difference.
Well I notice! That’s why I decided to go ahead and try my hand at the real thing. The best recipes I found were all in German, but luckily I can read German recipes now, so here is what I’ve come up with after reviewing several online recipes.
- 300g or 2.4 cups of all purpose flour (that’s 2.5 cups minus a tablespoon)
- 1/2 tsp baking powder
- 2 TBSP cocoa powder
- 1-2 TBSP Lebkuchen Spice (if you make 1/4-1.2 of this recipe, you’ll end up with the right amount).
- 150g of ground nuts (which is made by taking just over 1 cup of whole nuts and grinding them until almost powder-like in a food processor). I used 100g hazelnuts + 50g almonds or 150g marzipan
- 3 large or 4 small eggs, separated
- 150g or 1 stick of butter
- 150g or 3/4 cup sugar (I prefer raw turbinado, since it has the molasses intact, which is removed from processed white sugar. I think this gives a nice flavor)
- zest from 1 lemon and 1 orange (I use this instead of candied orange and lemon, which is what the German recipes all call for)
- 250ml or 1 cup of milk
- some raisins or currants (optional, I usually leave them out)
- Toppings: either tempered chocolate (or chocolate glaze), or a mixture of 1/4 cup rum or amaretto combined with an equal amount of powdered sugar, slightly heated to blend.
- Optional: A pack of medium-sized Back Oblaten, which can be purchased at German shops around the holiday season. Oblaten are both communion wafers and sheets of paperlike material laid under gingerbreads or baked meringues to keep them from sticking to the pan.
Pre-heat the oven to 180C or 350F.
Take out a large baking sheet and line it with parchment paper. If you are using the oblaten, then with your fingers, splash a few droplets of water on the paper and spread it with your fingers. You just want a few droplets here and there on the paper. If you’re not using the oblation, then skip the water.
Blend then sift together the flour, baking powder, cocoa powder and spice mixture. Stir in the ground nuts if using (if using marzipan, then wait).
With a hand mixer, first beat the egg whites until stiff. Then add half the sugar and beat another 5-10 minutes. Then with the same mixture (no need to wash it), cream butter with half the other half of the sugar and zests. Once incorporated and the sugar is dissolved, add in the egg yolks, one at a time, while continuing to beat. Finally, stir in the milk, raisins and marzipan if using.
Now blend all three mixtures together, the yolk and butter mixture, eggwhite mixture and dry ingredients, and stir until incorporated.
Now place the oblaten on the sheet and spoon a big spoonful of batter onto each one (or directly on the parchment paper).
Bake for 15-20 min until a toothpick inserted into the center of one comes out dry.
The cookies on their own are not very sweet at all. They definitely require a good soaking of rum or amaretto and either a coating of sugar icing or chocolate glaze. They get better after drying out a bit in a cookie tin after several days or so.