Yup, you read that right. January is when I start planning for Christmas. Not going out and buying up the sales for gifts. Not editing my mailing list for holiday cards (haven’t even gotten to 2012 yet!). No, now is the time that I start my baking.
What, Baking for Christmas? That’s right. I make a tradition laden cookie called Lebkuchen. Its a German holiday cookie made with honey and nuts and citron. And it has to sit for six months or more to be good. I make the dough in January, and then in September I roll it out and cut it and bake it, pack it in tins and let it mellow until Christmas. My Grandmother used to pack it in tins and bury it in the back yard (something to do with the cold and humidity, or maybe it was so her boys couldn’t find it and eat it all). It doesn’t go bad. The honey is a natural preservative. Try it and see for yourself! You’ll find a recipe at the end of this post.
Lebkuchen is rolled out thick and decorated with nuts and candied cherries and cut into squares, or it is rolled out thinner and cut into the shape of St. Nicholas, Hansel and Gretel. Why Hansel and Gretel? Well they loved to eat lebkuchen. “Nibble, nibble little mouse, who’s been nibbling at my house”? So said the Witch as Hansel and Gretel ate away at the Lebkuchen tiles that adorned the Witch’s cottage. It’s sort of hard to tell from looking at a lumpy lebkuchen cookie which one is St. Nicholas, Hansel or Gretel. That’s why you have to paste onto the cookie with icing the highly detailed die cut labels for each character. And that’s where KnK comes in.
After many years of searching, the only place I could find the labels was on Ebay, where they went for $30 and up, each. My brother in Switzerland was able to find a pack of two for $7 (before postage), but only during the holidays. But in cleaning out her kitchen drawers prior to a move, my Mom found a set of cutters, and a pack of labels. But there were only a couple of each figure left. I knew I had to buckle down and learn how to use the print and cut feature in KnK once again.
I scanned the originals, then manipulated them in Photoshop to put as many as I could on a page. Saving the file as a jpeg, I imported it into Make The Cut. Using glossy brochure paper (the right weight and similar to the original) I printed them out on a photo printer and then placed the result on the KnK to cut out.
Christmas present is a little more like Christmas past when our family has Lebkuchen just like 50 years ago, even 75 years ago and longer. Looks great, tastes great! Thanks to KnK I can preserve my memories and pass them on to others.
If you are wanting to try making your own Lebkuchen, here is a recipe that I got from my Mom. It makes a ton of dough. You can bake half the dough, and store the rest in the fridge (not freezer) until next year. It won’t go bad or get moldy. The honey is a preservative, and the dough that has been sitting for months tastes better than fresh!
6 pounds honey or molasses or combo of both (this must be honey that is over a year old. I like to go heavy on the honey, and minimal on the molasses.) Heat this up in a cauldron and add and melt
1 cup butter
sift and add a sufficient bread flour until you have a semi-liquid dough (think thick pancake dough). Why is there no exact amount called for? Well, this is an old recipe and because honey differs in viscosity.
Add 4C sugar; ½ cup mixed spices of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, mace, allspice; 4t grated fresh lemon rind. You can be more generous with the spices. Who wants bland lebkuchen, and how often do you get to cook with Mace?
When your dough is well mixed and barely warm, add 1oz. hartshorn that has been dissolved in 1/2C wine or rum or water. OK, what is hartshorn? It is a very old leavening agent. A bit of history here. A hart is a deer, and hart’s horn is just that. The horn (antler) of the deer. It used to be finely ground up and used as a leavening agent. Today, we don’t grind up deer antler, but use carbonate of powdered ammonia. You used to be able to get it at the chemist, but only very old pharmacists have a clue about what it is and don’t carry it. Don’t despair! Some websites such as King Arthur Flour, House on the Hill, and Amazon carry it.
Add 1 lb. blanched shredded almonds and ½ lb chopped citron (but I can never resist adding more…and it comes out fine).
Sift and add sufficient: All purpose flour (as compared to the bread flour you started with) to make a dough that sticks to your hands. You can bake at once if you have too, but the dough may be aged. Just put it in a crock with a tight fitting lid and shove in the back of the fridge for 6 months or more. Seriously. My last batch of dough was in the fridge 14 months, that’s because I made this monster batch and only used half (but we were really bummed out not having made a double batch!).
Keep that flour on hand. You want a sticky dough that you can just work with. It takes some playing with.
Roll out ¼ inch or a bit thicker (thicker does not shrink as much, important if you are using cutters and the paper labels) and cut with a floured cutter, rolling out between two pieces of waxed paper or the like. Bake on silpat or parchment for about 18 minutes at 325. If making the thicker cake like squares, pat out into a buttered jelly pan a bit thicker (½ inch) and bake 30-45 minutes. Let cool in the pan about half and hour before cutting and then frosting and decorating with nuts and citron or candied cherries (see photo above).
Frosting: 1 1/4C confectioners sugar, ¼ C lemon juice, 1t vanilla. The frosting is the glue that holds down the paper figure or the nuts and candied fruit.
After you have baked your Lebkuchen, and let the frosting dry, pack it away in tightly sealed tins and put them in a cool dark place (think pantry or cellar). Check on them about a month before you want to eat them. If they are a bit dry or hard, slice up some apple and lay it on top of some parchment over the Lebkuchen, and seal the tin back up. This will help add some moisture back into the cookies.