You know it’s Advent when the house smells like a German bakery! . . . Or better yet, like your Grandmas’ kitchens at Christmastime!
We made two different lebkuchen recipes this week: One is my mom’s current recipe, and the other is my Great-Grandma Thomas’s.
We always have to collect a bunch of wonderful ingredients; local black walnuts, sorghum from the Mennonite store, candied fruits from the “holiday baking aisle” at Schnuck’s, and more.
The recipe my mom has used for the past several years always gets rave reviews by everyone who eat those cookies. “Best lebkuchen ever!” is the general assessment. No kidding—they’re awesome. This is my first year to try making them. Why? Because Mom said she wasn’t going to bake them this year!
Mom’s recipe is based on one she found in a church-ladies cookbook: The Fruit of the Spirit: A Collection of Recipes by Heisinger Lutheran Home Auxiliary, Jefferson City, Missouri (Kearney, Neb.: Cookbooks by Morris Press, 2001). It appears on page 295 of that book and is named “Leb Cookies.” It was contributed by Goldie Kirchner, who noted that it “was given to my son, Ray, by Herbert Ehrhardt when they worked together at Stockman Feed Store many years ago.”
It’s got butter in it, and the liquid “lift” is provided by buttermilk and baking soda, so it’s got a good buttery richness to it. And who doesn’t like that?
In addition to molasses, it uses brown sugar, while many other recipes call for white.
Mom adjusts the fruits per her own mom’s way of making lebkuchen: It’s about 50 percent candied mixed fruit, 40 percent raisins, 5 percent citron, and 5 percent candied cherries. No, I don’t think these proportions have to be exact.
Here is something else that is a hallmark of both my mom’s and her mom’s lebkuchen: Grandma Renner always ground her mixed candied fruit in a small, hand-cranked meat grinder—the kind you clamp onto a table to use in making sausage.
I remember watching her push that sticky candied fruit into the grinder and turn the crank. What emerged was even stickier than before! But it had a nice, even texture, with much smaller pieces. Her idea, I think, was to distribute the flavors of the candied fruit more evenly.
Another plus is that by grinding the candied fruit, no one has to bite down on a big hunk of candied-whatever. Well—it’s a plus for people who don’t truly like candied mixed fruit.
Grinding the fruit, I noticed, also makes the dough easier to roll and cut.
Great-Grandma Thomas’s Recipe
This was passed down from the mother of my paternal grandmother. Grandma Schroeder’s mom’s name was Wilhelmine Thomas. I’ve told you a charming story about her and her husband, Albert, in an earlier blog post. Albert and Wilhelmine emigrated from Germany in the late 1800s.
We have a lot of different versions of her recipe, since it was used both by my paternal grandmother (naturally) as well as—get this—by my maternal grandmother! Yes, they were neighbors, and Grandma Renner liked and used the recipe.
Grandma Renner was usually careful to credit it as “Mrs. Thomas’s recipe,” but whether or not it’s marked as such, I can identify the recipe at a glance because, for the liquid rising agent, it calls for X tablespoons of baking soda mixed with Y cups of “cold black coffee.”
Also, although Grandma Renner amended the recipe by substituting her own blend of mixed fruit, grinding it with her sausage grinder, Great-Grandma Thomas’s recipe always only called for candied citron and lemon peel, and raisins and currants. No grinding required.
It never called for butter; early versions of it use lard, but most later renditions specify Crisco.
This recipe uses white sugar with the molasses—not brown.
The resulting cookies aren’t as buttery and sweet as the ones my mom makes. They have a darker flavor, and the chunks of fruit are chunkier.
Despite the thoughtful and well-reasoned alterations made by Grandma Renner, as far as I know, Grandma Schroeder did not change her mom’s recipe much . . . although she did write it down in English. Hmm: Maybe her biggest innovation was to decorate the leppies with stuff like candied cherries and colored sprinkles!
As a kid, I probably wouldn’t have liked them without these additions. I’m glad she used them on some of her leppies, because it started me trying and liking lebkuchen at a young age. (Kids can be kind of dense about really good foods, can’t they? I know I was.)
What Kind of Molasses?
When I started making lebkuchen, my first question on all these old recipes was, “Okay, it calls for ‘molasses,’ but what kind of molasses should I use?” I’m a late-twentieth-century gal; I’m used to having more shopping choices than I know what to do with.
I experimented with sorghum (presumably that’s what they had back in the early 1900s), but also regular ol’ Brer Rabbit, as well as blackstrap. (Wow, that batch was dark and distinctive! And the men in the family seemed to enjoy it, in particular.) I don’t think you can go wrong, though I’m sure everyone will have a preference.
Recently, as I reviewed some handwritten versions from Grandma Schroeder, I found this on one sheet: “Be sure to use ‘ripe’ sorghum or else Brer Rabbit brand.” There you go! Sorghum it is.
Then, from my Grandma Renner, I see in the ingredients list: “32 oz. jar Waconia molasses.” (Which—I think—is either a popular cultivar of sorghum, or else a brand of sorghum molasses that is now long gone.)
After all my experimenting, I’ve pretty much decided that real sorghum is the best, for its rich, light flavor.
Did you know that in Germany, honey is the usual sweetener for lebkuhen? Apparently here in the United States, back in our great-grandmothers’ day, sorghum was much less expensive than honey, so that’s why our grandmothers used it. It’s the same with the walnuts: In the Old World, they must have used English walnuts with their milder flavor, but here in Missouri black walnuts have become the tradition—they add a strong, distinctive flavor that we love but which would probably get our Missouri lebkuchen tossed out of a German bakery like so many inedible hockey pucks.
Oh, come on. You don’t honestly expect me to pronounce one of these recipes “superior” to the other! All I can say is, they are different, but they are more alike than they are different. And I feel rich indeed to have so many good recipes, from so many wonderful mothers and grandmothers, to bake at Christmastime.