Around here—and perhaps all around the world, including Germany—this is the number one German Christmas cookie of all time. Really: The official cookie of Christmas. Authoritative. Can’t have Christmas without lebkuchen—not if you’ve got “sauerkraut in the blood” like we do.
If you have German heritage like us, you probably know what I’m talking about. This is just as Christmassy as the Tannenbaum and “Stille Nacht”—lebkuchen. Sometimes you see it spelled “lepkuchen.” We call ’em “leppies” for fun. We’re German Americans, after all, so whatever’s authentic in Germany might be a little foreign to us.
Indeed—official German forms of this recipe nearly always use honey as the sweetener. According to Erin McCawley Renn, in her important book A Midwest German Christmas: Breads, Cakes, Cookies, Sweets, and Special Foods: Weihnachtsgebäck, -konfekt, und –speisen, Nuremberg, Germany, “became the center of the Lebkuchen industry because . . . [it] was on the direct route north from the Republic of Venice, where the spice ships unloaded anise, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, ginger, and black pepper, and Nuremberg was famous as the center of the finest honey-producing region in Germany.”
But, as Renn points out, Germans who immigrated to America tended to modify their recipes to utilize molasses instead of honey—molasses being cheaper and generally more available. Therefore, among us ethnic Germans here in the Midwest, the “traditional” lebkuchen recipes that came down to us from our immigrant grandmas usually feature sorghum or some other sweetener or combination of sweeteners. Sometimes I use blackstrap molasses!
In my experiments, I’ve found that sorghum is mild and is indeed a pretty good substitute for honey. Blackstrap molasses is delicious, too, with that dark, smoky, almost bitter flavor—and it makes for some truly distinctive cookies.
There’s also such at thing as “white lebkuchen,” which uses white sugar as the sweetener. My recipe for white leppies came from my Grandma S’s collection, and it calls for “cardamom to taste.” (Oooh, don’t throw me into the briar patch!)
The recipes vary considerably, but they almost all have a few things in common. First, they use a wonderful variety of spices, types that are traditionally considered almost medicinal, as digestive aids. These spices make me think of Indian cuisine: Cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, pepper, cardamom. Remember the comment about the spice trade? Here you go. When they first appeared in Europe, these were special, precious flavors. So special you reserve them for Christmas.
Another thing most leppies share is candied fruit. Candied lemon peel, candied citron, and candied orange peel pop up a lot. Some newer recipes use “candied mixed fruit,” with that pineapple . . . and whatever those little green things are.
In my family, you can’t have leppies without nuts, and the nuts are usually black walnuts. White leppies tend to include almonds instead. I guess some people use English walnuts and pecans for their lebkuchen, but whatever. With my people, leppies are the number one reason to procure black walnuts every fall. We compete with the squirrels for them.
As Renn also points out, nearly all lebkuchen recipes call for the completed dough to rest for some days before rolling and baking, in order for the flavors to meld.
Many recipes involve large amounts of ingredients and make a huge supply of cookies. Stored in a sealed container in a cool place, leppies can last for months—without any preservatives.
These are apparently pretty healthy cookies, as cookies go, having relatively few calories and being low in fat and cholesterol.
My uncle, a retired Conservation Agent, used to bring a coffee can of leppies and a Thermos of coffee with him on his frozen, late-night stakeouts, waiting in his darkened patrol car for poachers during deer season. His mother’s lebkuchen forever have a special place in his heart.
Lebkuchen recipes are passed down through the generations, sometimes modified, sometimes adhered to with stereotypical Germanic strictness.
In my case, I have the same recipe from both of my grandmas, since one grandma’s mother provided the recipe to both women—they lived on the same street, so Wilhelmine Thomas’s recipe is “grandma’s leppies” for me on both sides of my family. And each modified the recipe slightly to her own preferences.
After all this discussion, I’m not going to give you the precise formula. I will tell you, however, that Great-Grandma Thomas’s recipe calls for a half gallon of molasses, “10 cents citron peel” and “10 cents lemon peel,” “1/2 box of raisins,” “1/2 box of currants.” There’s a certain amount of interpretation required.
Her recipe also calls for “3 or 4 cups cold black coffee.”
Sometimes lebkuchen turn out kind of stiff and hard—but they are all precious in my sight. The stiffer ones are good for dunking. Or you can seal them up along with an apple, which mellows the texture after some weeks.
Yep, I made a ton of leppies this year, and the house smells absolutely marvelous.
Referenced in this post:
Erin McCawley Renn, A Midwest German Christmas: Breads, Cakes, Cookies, Sweets, and Special Foods: Weihnachtsgebäck, -konfekt, und –speisen. Hermann, Mo.: Deutschheim Association, 1999.
How do you get a copy of this book? Its copyright page gives a phone number for the publisher, the Deutschheim Association: 573-486-2200. Here is the association's website. Here is the Missouri DNR's website for the Deutschheim State Historic Site. Finally, the Gasconade County Historical Society sells the book on their website; click here to view that page.