It’s a perfect weekend for baking. So let’s go to Germany and learn more about their favorite traditional holiday treat: Lebkuchen.
Mmm, mmm. Smells good, doesn’t it? Cloves, ginger, cinnamon: the seasonal spices are in the air. And that takes me back to one of my favorite treats: Lebkuchen. I’ll confess it. My two favorite sweets are Marzipan-Kartoffeln (marzipan made to look like tiny potatoes) and German Lebkuchen. I’ll leave marzipan potatoes for another day because Lebkuchen is squarely on my mind today.
Lebkuchen is a dense, spiced German cookie that appears in stores in mid-November. Increasingly, you find it in U.S. shops too, which delights me. But when you find it, keep in mind, Lebkuchen is seasonal—baked for a specific holiday period, so it is (or should be) free of preservatives. That means it has a short shelf life.
“Seasonal” is a hard concept for us here in the U.S. where we revolve around a 24/7, twelve-month a year system. But try to imagine going to buy, say, Oreos and finding out that they’re available only in November and December. Or learning that Oreos stay fresh only a few weeks. Wait! Oreos never last more than a few days, do they?
But still, try to imagine. Because the lack of availability is part of what enhances an item. Looking forward to the seasonal appearance of special treats makes them far more delicious when they finally appear. Expectation, anticipation: such old concepts that run counter to our modern culture. But isn’t that also one of the reasons people are attracted to the flavor palate of Christmas?
Most of us grew up with Lebkuchen’s cousin, gingerbread. We’ll look at the difference in a minute. But first, let’s explore the etymology of Lebkuchen whose name derives from roots as varied as Leben (life), Leibe (body), Laib (loaf), or lebbe (super-sweet).
The Kuchen part definitely means “cake.” But usually we find Lebkuchen cut into a firm, round cookie or oblong bar. The dough is intensely flavored by various combinations of molasses, honey, cinnamon, cloves, cardamon, coriander, aniseed, allspice, nutmeg, lemon zest, and hazelnuts. It is then pressed onto white or cream-colored sheets called Oblaten. These serve as wafer-thin bottoms for the cookie. After baking, Lebkuchen are dusted with sugar, glazed, or covered in chocolate. And that’s how most people buy them, stacked on their edges in packs of 5 or 10 and wrapped in cellophane.
Lebkuchen dough can also be mixed to be rolled out into a dense layer (c. ½ inch thick). It’s then cut into a heart shape of various sizes, suitable for hanging as a decoration. No German Advent market (Weihnachtsmarkt) is complete without the kiosks where colorfully iced Lebkuchen hearts dangle enticingly. People don’t necessarily eat these hearts; rather, they are supposed to be presented to one’s sweetheart or beloved family members.
I first encountered Lebkuchen while living in West Germany in the early 1980s. It was one of those: “Where have you been all my life” moments. Earlier, I had formed a friendship with an East German musician in Russia where we had studied together at the Leningrad Conservatory. Despite many restrictions back then, it was possible to send treats at Christmastime from West Germany to East Germany. I asked my friends what I should select. “A box of Nürnberg Lebkuchen,” they all said. Acknowledged as the best, the Lebkuchen from Nürnberg came in festive wrappings including a decorated metal box that featured a wind-up music box embedded in the bottom. This gift was most happily received and, to my surprise, the box remains a keepsake in her family, decades after the reunification of Germany.
Where does gingerbread fit in this story, especially the gingerbread men our children so love to decorate?
The word gingerbread goes back not to “bread,” as we might guess, but to a 13th-century Old-French verb meaning “to preserve with ginger” (gingenbrat). There’s actually a Latin root gingimbratus that means “something gingered.” The noun form ginginbrar was transformed through folk usage by the 14th century into ginginbrede (brede=bread). Then, by the mid 18th century, the meaning of gingerbread was amplified to mean something intricately, perhaps frivolously, decorated. English sailors were known to call the decorative carvings on a ship gingerbread-work.
Ginger, itself, is an ancient, highly prized root. Known to the Romans (zingiberi) and Greeks (zingiberis), the word for ginger dates back to Middle Indic singabera, and, from there, possibly, to Sanskrit srngaveram. In that root you find srngam (horn) joined with vera (body), describing the root’s horn-shape.
The medicinal uses of ginger are legendary. Even today ginger shows up in healing teas and, to my surprise, as a remedy in a modern venue where I frequently work: cruise ships. Yes, dishes of candied ginger are placed around the ship and they really do help, especially if one has to give a talk on rolling seas!
But the most beloved form of ginger will always be those pudgy cookie-men with dots for eyes and a wry icy smile. References to gingerbread men are recorded from the mid 19th century, although surely moms centuries earlier were fashioning cookies into such charming shapes, don’t you think? And while you can bake ginger cake, bread, and cookies any time, the fragrance and flavor will always be associated with the winter months.
If your kids are older, have them look up the differences between the recipes for Lebkuchen and gingerbread. You can read the history of Nürnberg Lebkuchen going back to the late 15th century. You’ll find alternative names (honey-cake and Pfeffernusse) and much more lore. If you have time, have a bake-off. One team can try a recipe for Lebkuchen and another can make gingerbread. Whatever the results, your home will smell fabulous.