Gingerbread has a very illustrious history. Depending upon how you actually define gingerbread, you can trace it back all the way to ancient time. Back in pre-Christian times, in Ancient Egypt, but also with the old Teutons, the Romans or the Greek it was traditional to use gingerbread as a burial gift or as an object of sacrifice. In royal Egyptian tombs, historians discovereed honey cakes in the shape of plants, animals or humans, that were given to the deceased pharaohs as provisions for their journey to eternity. The Romans already knew baked cakes called 'panus mellitus‘, a sort of cake that was enhanced and baked with a layer of honey. And the old Teutons used to bake a sort of gingerbread in the shape of their cattle – so they could sacrifice the sweet cakes instead of their live cattle.
Gingerbread as we know it today has its origins in monastery bakeries, where, following traditional recipes, gingerbread (Lebkuchen), spicebread (Gewürzkuchen) and honey cakes (Honigkuchen) have been baked since the 11th and 12th century. Back then, gingerbread was baked as medecine or cure for all kinds of ailments, they were also baked during Lent.
In addition, in Christian symbolism, the ingredients such as spices, honey, almonds and nuts played an important role (more on that later). An old manusript that dates back to the 11th century and which hails from the monastery 'Tegernsee‘ (in Bavaria, Southern Germany) that mentions the term 'Pfefferkuchen‘ (which literally translates to 'pepper cake‘) and thereby refers to the fact that pepper was a catch-all phrase for spice in general, and in particular those spices that came all the way from ‚the Orient‘ including cinnamon, cloves, anise, cardamom, coriander, ginger and nutmeg.
Outside of the confines of monastery bakeries, gingerbread was first menitioned in 1296 in the City of Ulm (Bavaria) and in 1395 in the City of Nuremberg. In the 13th and 14th century the craft of the gingerbread bakers developed (Lebküchner) – in the beginning as part of the regular bakeries. But in the year 1643, the Nuremberg gingerbread bakers decided to part ways with the ‚regular bakers‘ and establish their own guild. In 1806, all of this competition actually culminated in the so-called 'Gingerbread War‘ (Lebkuchenkrieg) – as the gingerbread bakers wanted to forbid the regular bakers to bake gingerbread, the 'white gingerbread‘ to be exact (the one covered with a white sugary, frosty looking glaze). The discord was finally settled by King Maximilian I who decided in favor of the gingerbread bakers, so that they alone kept the right to bake white (sugar coated), black (chocolate covered) and plain gingerbread.
Apart from Nuremberg, regionally different gingerbread was baked in a number of other cities. But whereas in Nuremberg it was only baked by specific gingerbread bakers, in other cities, bakeries in general offered gingerbread as part of their seasonal assorted baked goods.
Since 1927 the designation 'Lebkuchen‘ has been protected by trademark law. And in 1996 the term 'Nürnberger Lebkuchen‘ was granted the prestigious qualification as 'Protected Designation of Origin‘ (g.g.A. - geschützte geografische Angabe) – meaning that only gingerbread made in Nuremberg can today legitimately be labeled 'Nürnberger Lebkuchen‘ within the EU.
As far as the origins of the name 'Lebkuchen‘ are concerned, there are a number of different theories. It is commonly believed that the word 'leb‘ originated form the Latin word 'lebum‘ which is a designation for 'flatbread‘ or 'sacrifice bread‘.
For the people who lived in the Middle Ages, gingerbread was not a mere treat but rather a baked good that was enriched with Christian traditions and sybolism. The number of the spices used, namely 'seven‘ was meant as a reference to the 7 days of creation, to the fact that the number 7 regulates our rhythm of life, that the 7 spices permeate the gingerbread dough much in the same way as the rules of the Bible permeate our lives. Furthermore, the oriental spices were meant as a reference to the fact that the Three Wise Men gifted the Baby Jesus with precious gifts from the Orient. And the sweetness of the honey is a common methaphor and reference to the fact that the Promised Land would flow 'with milk and honey‘. Finally, the almonds and hazelnuts with their rather hard nutshells are meant as a reminder of the birth, death and resurrection of Christ.
There is a legend of the Elisenlebkuchen, the most delicious of the many types of gingerbreads available. The traditionally flourless Elisenlebkuchen, the masterpiece of the trade since the early nineteenth century, with over 45% nut (almond and hazelnut) content are my very favorite kind and I bake them every year for Christmas.
According to the lore, this name goes back to 1720, when the daughter of one of Nuremberg’s master gingerbread bakers fell violently ill. Her desperate father, who had already lost his wife to a severe illness, remembered the healing properties of the oriental spices and decided to bake an especially wholesome gingerbread for his ill daughter, made only with hazelnuts, honey and spices. After the girl had eaten some of the special gingerbread that her father had baked for her, she is said to have completely recovered from her illness and full of gratitude, her father named this special gingerbread after his daughter who was called Elisabeth - hence, the Elisenlebkuchen was born. While the original recipe for Elisenlebkuchen still calls for only ground and chopped nuts but no flour, today, most bakers use up to 10% of flour to create a more manageable dough which is placed on pre-cut edible paper, also called rice or oblaten paper. Elisenlebkuchen are usually glazed with sugar or chocolate, or plain. My favorite kind are glazed with dark chocolate with just a hint of white choclate for the final touch.
Elisenlebkuchen (Traditional German Gingerbread)
(yields about 35 to 40)
For the Elisenlebkuchen
- 235g superfine baking (caster) sugar
- 3 eggs (M), organic or free-range (each egg weighs about 53g to 63g)
- a pinch of fine sea salt
- 8g pure vanilla sugar
- 250g natural almonds, finely ground
- 50g natural hazelnuts, coarsely chopped
- 50g candied orange peel, very finely chopped (best done in a small food processor)
- 50g candied lemon peel, very finely chopped
- grated zest of each ½ organic/untreated lemon and orange
- ½ tsp Ceylon cinnamon, ground
- ½ tsp cloves, ground
- ½ tsp allspice, ground
- ½ coriander, ground
- ½ tsp mace OR nutmeg, freshly grated
- ½ tsp cardamom, ground
- ½ tsp ginger, ground
- 35 to 40 round wafer papers for baking (about 5 to 6cm)
For the Decoration
- 200g dark chocolate couverture plus some white chocolate/couverture
- In a large bowl, mix together the sugar, eggs, salt and vanilla sugar until the mixture has doubled in volume.
- Add ground and chopped nuts, finely minced candied peel, grated lemon and orange zest and all the spices to the mix.
- Cover and let rest in a cool place for about 24 hours.
- The next day, prepare two baking sheets and line them with baking parchment. Then form dough balls (best done using a cookie scoop) - they shoud weigh about 15 to 18 g each. Place them on your baking wafer papers. NOTE: either order the wafer papers online, get them at your favorite German deli OR bake the Elisenlebkuchen on parchment lined baking sheets sans baking wafers. If you omit the wafers, you will need to glaze the bottom side of the baked and cooled cookies as well, otherwise they will dry out.
- Pre-heat your oven to 180° C (356°F).
- Place the Elisenlebkuchen on your parchment lined baking sheets and bake for about 12 to 15 minutes or until they have set and taken on a lighty golden color.
- Take the Elisenlebkuchen out of the oven, leave them on the baking sheets and place the baking sheets on cooling racks.
- Once the Elisenlebkuchen have cooled, melt the dark chocolate couverture, and glaze the tops - while the glaze is still warm, draw lines with a bit melted white chocolate.
- to keep the Elisenlebkuchen soft and chewy, keep them in a cookie tin. Cover the cookies with baking parchment and place a few apple slices in the tin together with the cookies to keep them extra moist - make sure to change the apples every other day.
- the seven spices can be substituted with 3 tsp Gingerbread Spice Mix (Lebkuchen Gewürzmischung) plus ½ TL ground cinnamon.
- if you prefer larger Elisenlebkuchen, then chose larger baking wafers and increase the baking time by a few minutes.
While gingerbread cookies without nuts can be cut into a variety of shapes such as gingerbread men, this type of gingerbread (Lebkuchen) is more akin to drop cookies, soft and chewy, with lots of flavor from the different spices, the nuts and the citrus peels.
*Frohe Weihnachten! * Joyeux Noël! * Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all!*
Please note that this blog post is part of my series for a 'local' radio station, where, throughout the years, I present different baked goods that are closely tied to various holidays and seasons. If you are interested, have a LOOK & LISTEN (in German) HERE.
The various recipes of my series can be found here:
- in January, for Three Kings Day (Dreikönigstag) two kinds of Galette des Rois (Dreikönigskuchen) (HERE)
- for Lent (Fastenzeit) Lenten Soup with Lenten Beugel (Fastenbeugel) (HERE)
- for Good Friday (Karfreitag) the delicious Hot Cross Buns (HERE)
- for Pentecost /Whitsun (Pfingsten) the fun Allgäu Bread Birds (Allgäuer Brotvögel) (HERE)
- for the beginning of the summer vacation, the lovely Sacristains (Almond & Sugar Puff Pastry Sticks) (HERE)
- for St Christopher's Day (St Christophorus), the energy-packed Müsli Power Bars (Müsli Energieriegel) (HERE)
- for Mary's Assumption Day (Mariä Himmelfahrt) my Tear & Share Herb Bread (Kräuterbrot) (HERE)
- for Mary’s Birthday (Mariä Geburt) some very pretty Mary’s Sweet Rolls (Süße Marienküchlein) (HERE)
- for Thanksgiving (Erntedankfest) a delicious and seasonal Thanksgiving Apple Tart with Frangipane (Erntedank Apfeltarte mit Mandelcreme) (HERE)
- for Halloween a Pumpkin Spice Bundt Cake (Kürbis-Gewürzkuchen)
- for St Martin's Day (Martinsfest) the cheerful Sweet Dough Men (Weckmänner) (HERE)
- for St Andrew's Day (Andreastag) a classic Petticoat Tails Shortbread (HERE)
- for Christmas Day (Weihnachten) these Traditional German Gingerbread (Elisenlebkuchen) (HERE)
- for New Year's Eve a New Year's Eve Pretzel (Neujahrsbretzel)
- and for Candelmas Day (Mariä Lichtmess) some delightful Navettes de Saint Victor (HERE) - more delicious treats to come very soon.