Having recently celebrated an Oktoberfest dinner at home with friends, I needed something traditionally German to end our meals, but nothing as hugely filling as the Black Forest Cake, which is the German cake to end all cakes. Although these are traditionally Christmas cookies (and Marian Keyes tells a charming tale of receiving a 20cm lebkuchen from a friend and realising only upon prompting from her husband that it was meant as decoration (due to a ribbon attached) and not for immediate consumption), they worked wonderfully well for a sweet end to a very generous meal.
Apparently giving lebkuchen to friends is a German Christmas tradition, which I find thoroughly charming, and fully intend to present these to friends this Christmas.
Apart from being charming in their traditional heart shapes, these biscuits also taste amazing; like an intensely spicy gingerbread. If you usually make gingerbread for Christmas treats and gifts, you should give these a go as an alternative. You can, of course, make them in any shapes you choose. Ice them festively and present to appreciative friends!
Basic biscuit mix
- 100g butter
- 275g honey
- 100g light brown sugar
- 2 ½ tbs cocoa powder
- 600g plain flour
- pinch of salt
- 1 ½ tsp baking powder
- 1 egg
- Writing icing to decorate (I used the Queen’s 4 basic colour tubes)
- 2 heaped tbs lebkuchen spice mix*
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- 1tsp ground coriander
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 tsp ground allspice
- ½ tsp ground nutmeg
- 2 cloves, crushed a little
- 1 star anise
- 6 cardamom pods, crushed slightly
First of all, this dough needs to chill in the fridge for at least 2 hours, so be sure to allow yourself that time. They do keep well in an air-tight tin for at least a week, so there’s no need to be making them last minute.
In a small saucepan, place the butter, honey sugar, spices and cocoa powder and heat gently until the butter has melted and the sugar has dissolved. Be careful not to let it burn, it will look very dark and thick so could be hard to tell. As soon as all has amalgamated, take it off the heat and allow to cool. If you have used the whole spices, remove the cloves, cardamom pods and star anise now.
In a large mixing bowl, sift the flour and baking powder and stir together with the salt. Make a well in the centre and pour in first the egg and then the butter-spice mix. Mix together on low speed with your beaters until it comes together in a ball.
Divide roughly into 2 balls and wrap each in glad wrap and place in the fridge. Let them sit for at least a couple of hours, but you can leave it upto 2 days if that suits you better.
When you’re ready, line 4 baking trays with paper and heat the oven to 180. Flour your bench and roll the dough out to about 1cm thick. These are chunky biscuits, which makes the rolling out easier and also makes them better for fiddly Christmas shapes.
Once cut, lift off the bench with a knife (a palette knife if you have one) and place gently on the baking trays. Make a small hole in the corner of the hearts with a drinking straw if you wish to thread a ribbon through them to hang as decorations.
Once all the hearts are cut, bake for 15 to 20 minutes, but do watch that they don’t catch on the bottom (they will burn from the underneath first – the heart tip will colour to let you know). Let the cookies cool completely on their tray; they will continue cooking and harden as they cool.
Decorate as you wish – or even leave them plain, the taste alone is enough to entice anyone. For a slightly more grown-up, less kitsch look, I think they would be very smart decorated all in white icing with a variety of patterns.
If you wish to stick to the very traditional German style though, lots of colours and even German phrases are key. As it was not Christmas time, I wrote “I love you” in both English and German “Ich liebe dich”, because who could resist such tasty cookies adorned with the sweetest sentiment of all?
*I got my lebkuchen spice mix as a gift from Mel, who had hunted it down personally from a charming store called, appropriately, Gewurzhaus (German for Spice House). If you are unable to get there in person, they do have an online store, so you can get it delivered.