These German Christmas Cookies Take Two Months to Make
They're called Lebkuchen.
I'm in a mixed marriage, by which I mean I am Jewish, but my husband is not. My husband could care less about holiday décor, but I, like many of my people, grew up bereft of fun and festive decorations around this time of year, so having a legit excuse to put something up in the house feels like a huge win. Our tree is small, only 4-feet tall, and made of reclaimed wine barrel staves. It sets up, with two little strings of fairy lights and about a dozen ornaments, and a Star of David topper in fifteen minutes or less and breaks down for storage even faster.
But when it comes to baking? I am all-in on holiday cookies. Don’t get me wrong, I am also all-in on latkes, because fried potatoes, and sufgaiyot, because fried donuts, but generally my holiday culinary adventures are all about the cookies. And then this past fall, I picked up a copy of Luisa Weiss’s Classic German Baking Cookbook. German cooking and baking is not really in my wheelhouse, generally. But I have been a fan of Luisa’s blog for a long time and knew how much work and research went into the book, so I was excited to see what treasures lay within its pages. I was shocked at how many of the recipes really spoke to me, and how many little markers I was putting in them for future experiments, and then I came across the recipe that I could not stop thinking about: Lebkuchen.
A fairly simple honey gingerbread cookie, deeply spiced, and leavened with an ancient ingredient…potash or potassium chloride. From before the days of baking powder and baking soda and other leaveners, this was a seriously old-school recipe. And the thing that really clinched it? The dough rests for two months before you bake the cookies. Once baked, apparently, they last for months more, which is great when you are anticipating wanting a nice full cookie jar to get you through the season, or if you want to make cookies to ship to people who are far away.
On October 11, I made the dough, put it in a bowl with a plate on top and stashed it in my cellar. Two months later, to the day, I rolled out the thick, slightly tacky dough, cut it into shapes, decorated some with traditional blanched almonds and some with candied lemon peel, and left some plain. Then I baked them, glazed them, and dipped some in chocolate. Some notes that I had with these: The recipe calls for placing the cookies close together on the baking sheets, I placed mine about a half an inch apart, as I would have done with a stiff cookie that does not spread. These did spread, so they all fused into each other. I was easily able to slice between the cookies after baking but while still hot with a sharp knife point, so my edges weren’t pretty, but it didn’t affect the taste or other aspects. If you want all of your cookies to have clean edges I would place them at least an inch or more apart, and use three cookie sheets instead of the two called for.
When first baked, they are super light and crisp, with a really interesting honeycomb sort of texture inside. As they sit, they soften slightly and get a pleasant chew. Are they the best cookie I have ever eaten? Nope. But will I make them again? You bet. Because there is something really lovely about taking some time in October to think about the festive season that is coming. To have that knowledge that in a cool corner of your home there are future cookies that are just waiting to be baked. That soon there will be twinkly lights and Hanukah candles and cards from friends on the front hall table, and our little quirky wooden tree, and so many cookies. No matter how you were raised, or what your holiday looks like to you, if the only way you even acknowledge the season is to make some cookies, that seems like a sweet way to face the dark days of winter and have a little hope for the New Year.