9 December 2011

Traditional Gingerbread - 'Lebkuchen'

Here is another classic and traditional recipe. Of course, there are a multitude of different types of Lebkuchen and this is just one variety of many. You can find gingerbread with nuts, with marzipan, filled with jam or crystallised sugar, baked on a thin wafer, topped with icing or chocolate – the list goes on. This recipe is a plain variety. It is fragrant and spicy, but without nuts or fillings. I like this gingerbread particularly because it reminds me of my childhood. It tastes just  like those brightly decorated gingerbread hearts that are always sold at fairs (do I need to mention the Oktoberfest?) and not only at Christmas time across the south of Germany. The recipe is easy to process and suitable for cutting out shapes that can then be decorated. It is also perfect for building a gingerbread house. Nicely decorated gingerbread shapes are often used as tree decorations (although I think it's a shame to let them go dusty, they taste too good).

Traditional gingerbread contains a lot of honey and the dough needs to be rested to mature and to develop its full flavour. As an avid reader of cookery magazines I am often surprised at the kinds of recipes sold to us as gingerbread. The addition of a few spices to regular buttery pastry does not make a Lebkuchen. Traditionally, gingerbread is baked with potassium carbonate as a raising agent. Regular baking powder or baking soda is not really suitable for gingerbread dough that needs to rest for several days. I have read elsewhere that in case of emergency potassium carbonate can be replaced with half the amount of baking powder. I have not tried this myself, but apparently it affects the flavour and the biscuits are harder and drier because baking powder does not reabsorb moisture into the gingerbread. In Germany potassium carbonate (Pottasche) is sold in little sachets in the run-up to Christmas. The same sachets can be purchased on ebay, but I have also seen food grade potassium carbonate for sale relatively cheaply elsewhere on the internet. The recipe makes about two tins full of gingerbread shapes.

For the gingerbread spice mix:
1 level tablespoon of cinnamon
2 generous pinches of ground cloves
1 generous pinch each of ground allspice, nutmeg, coriander, cardamom, ginger and mace

For the dough:
250g honey
250 g Demerara sugar
550 g flour
2 tbsp cocoa powder (optional)
1 egg
12 g potassium carbonate
4 cl rum or water

Heat the honey with the sugar and butter and stir until all the sugar has dissolved. Do not boil. Take off the heat and leave to cool down for a bit. Now stir in the flour, the egg and the spices (add the cocoa powder if you would like darker ginger bread, as on my pictures) and mix well with an electric hand blender, or in the food processor. Dissolve the potassium carbonate in the rum or water and add to the dough, mixing well. If the dough is extremely sticky add some more flour, but not too much. The dough firms up and becomes less sticky when it has rested. Cover the bowl with aluminium foil or a plate and leave to rest in a cool place. The dough needs to mature for at least two days and longer if there is time. My gingerbread dough rested in my fridge’s vegetable drawer for three weeks.

When the dough is ready bring it back to room temperature and knead it in sections until soft and elastic. Roll out the dough between two layers of clingfilm until about ½ cm thick. Cut out the shapes you like, place on a baking sheet covered in baking paper and bake at 180 degrees for 15 – 20 minutes (baking time depends on the size of the biscuits). The shapes will puff up and increase in size, so leave some space in between them. It is important to keep an eye on the biscuits and not to let them go too dark or to burn around the edges (the raw dough is quite dark, so this is not so easy to see). If the biscuits go too dark they will be hard and taste bitter. Leave to cool on the baking sheet before removing them.

The sky’s the limit when it comes to decorating the gingerbread. I like heart shapes decorated with half an almond for a traditional look (the almond is put on the biscuit before baking). The gingerbread also tastes great dipped into melted dark chocolate and it can be decorated with sprinkles if desired. 

The gingerbread is soft when it comes out of the oven and hardens as it cools down. The biscuits should be stored in a tin for a few days before you eat them to allow them to soften again. If the gingerbread is too hard even after a day or two put a piece of fresh apple in the tin as this helps to make them soft.

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