Thursday, November 29, 2012

Traditional German Gingerbread "Elisenlebkuchen"

Today I am featuring one very beloved Christmas cookie with a long tradition, the so-called Lebkuchen (Gingerbread). In general, Gingerbread is a baked sweet containing ginger (thus its name) and oftentimes warming spices such ground cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, cardamom and anise. Traditionally, it is sweetened with any combination of brown sugar, molasses, light or dark corn syrup, or honey. It comes in many different shapes and sizes.

Gingerbread can either take the shape of thin, crisp cookies like Dutch Speculaas that is cut into hearts or other fanciful shapes. Gingerbread can also be a dark, Spice Cake like an American version served, sometimes, with lemon glaze, or the lighter French Pain d'Épices. The third form gingerbread takes today is in a house-shaped confection made with a variation of gingerbread cookie dough. The gingerbread house became popular in Germany after the Brothers Grimm published their fairy tale collection which included "Hänsel and Gretel" in the 19th century. Early German settlers brought this Gingerbread House (Lebkuchenhaus) tradition to the Americas.

But the Germans like a softer, puffier version known as Lebkuchen. So, today, I am presenting the traditional soft version of the German Lebkuchen. There are many different types of  traditional German Lebkuchen which loosely translates as “a cookie or cake representing life”. First, there is the Honey Cakes (Honigkuchen) and the Pepper Cakes (Pfefferkuchen), both names refer to the predominant ingredient in those gingerbread-style baked goods. And then there are the Elise´s Cakes (Elisenlebkuchen)  which I am featuring today. These are a soft variety of Lebkuchen made since 1880. To this day, it is uncertain whether the name Elise refers to the daughter of a gingerbread baker or the wife of a margrave.

As with all other Lebkuchen, the ingredients for the Soft German Lebkuchen (Elisenlebkuchen) usually include the warm and wintry spices such cinnamon but also ground nuts such almonds, hazelnuts, and walnuts and finely diced candied fruit, such as the candied peel of oranges (Orangeat) and lemons (Zitronat). As raising agents, bakers traditionally use Salt of Hartshorn (Hirschhornsalz) and Potash (Pottasche).

Lebkuchen dough is usually placed on a thin wafer base called Oblate (Backoblaten). This was an idea of the monks, who used unleavened communion wafers to prevent the dough from sticking. Typically, these types of Lebkuchen are glazed or covered with very dark chocolate, but some are left uncoated or sugar-coated. For decoration, you can use whole almonds, hazelnuts or leave them plain.

 These Soft German Lebkuchen greatly improve in flavor if you place them in cookie tins and give them a chance to soften and mellow.

One last noteworthy information is that one of the unusual ingredients of today´s recipe is finely grated boiled potatoes. I will be featuring different German Lebkuchen recipes in the next few days and this old-fashioned “farmers´ wives” recipe not only contains the already mentioned potatoes but also ingredients that can easily be found wherever you live – I do have a passion for these kinds of recipes, I find them intriguing and I love to try them whenever I can find them. So next time you are boiling potatoes, remember to boil three additional medium sized ones (in the skin), put them aside, leave to cool overnight and bake these Soft German Chocolate Glazed Lebkuchen the next day and surprise your family and friends with delectable Christmas cookies called “Elisenlebkuchen”.

Recipe for Soft German Chocolate Glazed Lebkuchen

Ingredients for the Lebkuchen

  • 370 grams (1 ¾ cups) super fine white sugar
  • 250 grams (8 ounces/2 1/4 cups) ground hazelnuts (I always leave the skins on)
  • 3 eggs (L), organic or free range whenever possible
  • 50 grams (1.7 ounces) finely diced candied lemon peel (“Zitronat”)
  • 50 grams (1.7 ounces) finely diced candied orange peel (“Orangeat”)
  • 1 leveled tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 ½ packets (4 ½ leveled tsp) baking powder (such as Dr. Oetker baking powder called "Backin")
  • 225 grams (1 ¾ cups) AP/plain flour
  • 3 boiled potatoes, cooled, peeled and grated finely on the box grater
  • about 75 round baking wafers (“Oblaten”) 5 cm (2 inches) -  NOTE: you can find them at European stores or bake the Lebkuchen sans wafers but on non-stick Silpat mats or parchment paper

Ingredients for the Chocolate Glaze and Decoration

  • 200 grams (7 ounces) dark chocolate, broken into chunks
  • additional hazelnuts

Preparation of the Lebkuchen

  1. Preheat your oven to 175 degrees Celsius (350 degrees Fahrenheit).
  2. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or Silpat mats.
  3. In a large bowl, whisk together the sugar, ground hazelnuts, eggs, diced candied lemon and orange peel, cinnamon, baking powder and flour.
  4. Add the finely grated potatoes and carefully mix together. Your dough should have a thick and somewhat “sticky” consistency.
  5. Either take a piping bag and pipe the dough onto the baking sheets or pipe or spoon onto the baking wafers, you should a small mound of dough for each cookie (5 centimeters /2 inches). Do not bake more than twelve on one baking sheet, because they do tend to spread a bit while baking.
  6. Bake for about 20 minutes – the cookies will be set on the outside but have to be still soft and a bit chewy in the middle.
  7. Transfer the baking sheets to a cooling rack and cool for ten minutes. Then transfer the cookies to the racks to cool completely and decorate with dark chocolate and nuts.

Preparation of the Chocolate Glaze

  1. Melt the chocolate over medium heat in a double-boiler or in the microwave.
  2. Place the Lebkuchen on a large rack set over a cookie sheet and pour the warm melted chocolate over the Lebkuchen, wait until chocolate almost sets and then decorate with additional hazelnuts (I always leave some plain and decorate the others with three hazelnuts each).
  3. Wait until the chocolate has completely set and place the Lebkuchen in cookie tins.They will keep for up to three weeks and definitely improve in taste after a day.

Lebkuchen is easy to make and a wonderful and traditional Christmas treat or as William Shakespeare once remarked:
And I had but one penny in the world, thou should'st have it to buy gingerbread.
-- William Shakespeare, "Love's Labor's Lost"


  1. From the photo, it looks like you've already visited a Christmas market. I'd love to see one of the German Christmas markets sometime!

    And your cookies look terrific - but anything with ginger is bound to be a winner.

    1. Thanks, Beth - yes, we have visited two German Christmas markets so far. The pictures in my last two Christmas Cookie Posts are from the market in Bonn (where we live).

  2. I think I’m adding these to my Christmas cookies this year…they sound so delicious!! Absolutely lovely, Andrea!

    1. Thank you, Kathy - these Lebkuchen are a wonderful addition to any plate filled with wonderful homemade Christams cookies!

  3. I had no idea that there were so many different kinds of gingerbread. I prefer cakey cookies, so I know I would like these. They are so pretty with the chocolate glaze and hazelnuts on top.

    1. Elaine, yes, there seem to be countless variations on the theme - I am sure that they all taste wonderful but I must say that I am partial to these Lebkuchen.