My Honey Girl is a sculptor, and when she was younger she made busts of culinary heroes for me. An animated, joyful Julia Child sits on my crowded cookbook cases across from a serene looking Marion Cunningham. If she ever offers to make another, Duluth, Minnesota native Beatrice Ojakangas will be next on the shelf. She started, like me,—ah hope!—as a home cook, and her Chunk O Cheese Bread won the 1957 Pillsbury Bake-Off contest. She is one of those cooks and bakers whose recipes are flawless, and everything about her books seems Midwestern to me. They aren’t about glossy layout, design, or photography. They are modest, simple books full of excellent recipes and useful illustrations. I have never baked a recipe from one of Beatrice’s books that didn’t turn out perfectly. Beatrice specializes in Scandinavian baking and cooking, and she brought Finnish culinary traditions and recipes to the fore. All of her books are excellent, but I am especially fond of The Great Scandinavian Baking Book.
I have made Lebkuchen for years, but this recipe replaced my old versions a few years ago and I won’t be searching anymore. Here is Beatrice’s recipe from The Great Holiday Baking Book, with a few of my tips, too. Lebkuchen are a honeyed and richly spiced cookie, chewy, and cake-like. They are baked on Oblaten wafers and glazed with a confectioners’ sugar icing or dunked in chocolate. They are traditional in Germany where, if you’re lucky enough to be traveling during the Advent season, you may wander the Marktplatz in any village, small or large, nibbling a Lebkuchen while you browse the Christmas stalls.
German Christmas music for baking Lebkuchen:
I bought a CD of carols and hymns sung by German choirs at Kathe Woflfahrt, the famed German Christmas shop, some years ago, in their Tokyo location of all places. I can’t seem to find it online, but the shop now offers this collection of carols, Alpenlanische Weihnacht, or Christmas in the Mountains.
Have a hot pad and a few thick kitchen towels ready. You will need them when you beat the egg and sugar mixture over simmering water to protect your hand, and to wipe dry the mixing bowl when you remove it from the water.
I grind the almonds in a food processor. Leave them there and add the spices, candied peel, and flour to the bowl, give the mixture a few pulses, and it’s ready to be stirred into the egg mixture.
Using fresh candied peel will make a world of difference in your baking. If fresh is prohibitively expensive and you don’t want to make your own, toss the peel that comes in the little plastic tubs in a generous amount of sugar and a splash of fresh juice to bring it to life and sweeten it a bit. I use all orange peel when I bake this recipe or half orange and half lemon.
You may use a dedicated coffee grinder to grind the cardamom and a plane grater to grind the nutmeg.
Pat out the cookies with damp fingers. They must look pretty when they go into the oven or they will emerge from the oven looking like misshapen rocks.
I dunk my Lebkuchen in chocolate, and generously. I prefer 20 ounces of melted 58% cacao beads. After dipping, pop the cookies in the freezer for a few minutes to set before you nestle them into tins to store in the freezer for Christmas.
I add a tablespoon or two of light corn syrup to the chocolate to give it a glossier appearance.
To dunk a cookie, grasp it by its edges and nestle it into the bowl of melted chocolate. Give it a few turns around the edges so that the chocolate coats the entire top surface of the cookie.
Shake off the excess chocolate vigorously over the bowl. Then, holding the cookie parallel to the bowl, give it a little wigglewaggle. This motion smooths the chocolate on the top of the cookie beautifully.
This recipe is part of the Cookie Baking and Candy Making Plan for Christmas 2010 (here).
from Beatrice Ojakangas’ Great Holiday Baking Book
Yield: about 50 cookies
5 large eggs
1 ¾ c. sugar
2 ½ c. unblanched almonds, finely ground
1 c. all purpose flour (I prefer King Arthur.)
½ c. finely diced orange peel
½ c. finely diced lemon peel
2 t. ground cinnamon
1 t. freshly ground cardamom
½ t. freshly ground nutmeg
¼ t. ground cloves
¼ t. ground allspice
¼ t. ground ginger
about 50 Oblaten (round German baking wafers), 2 ¾ or 3” in diameter
1 c. semisweet chocolate chips (Or see my note in the tips above.)
About 50 halved blanched almonds
- In the bowl of an electric mixer or in a large bowl, beat or whisk the eggs and sugar together, until light and fluffy. Place the bowl over a pan of simmering water over low heat and heat, whisking until the mixture is thick and very warm (about 130 degrees). Remove from the water bath and continue beating until the mixture is cool. Combine the almonds, flour, zests, and spices in another bowl. Stir into the egg-sugar mixture. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
- Place the Oblaten on baking sheets two inches apart. Spread one rounded tablespoon of the cookie dough on each Oblaten, spreading to the edges of the wafers. Let the cookies stand, uncovered, for one hour before baking so that the top will dry.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Bake the cookies for 15 to 20 minutes, until the cookies are crusty on the upper surface, but still moist in the center. Remove the cookies from the baking sheet and cool on a wire rack.
- Place the chocolate into a glass bowl and heat in the microwave at high power for about two minutes, stirring every 15 seconds, until melted. Spread the melted chocolate over the remaining cookies. (Or see my note in the dunking tips above.) Decorate with the almonds.