Baking cookies at Christmastime is more than a sugar-loaded, flour explosion in my kitchen. As is the case for so many foods, it is the creation and recollection of memories. It is a hands-on recitation of “remember when”. Story after story surfaces about successes and failures, who made which delicacy best and the tricks and tips of those people who taught us the recipes. There is always the regret of not asking more questions regarding the history of those family favorites.
bitte, danke and lebkuchen
The first German word I ever learned was either Bitte (please), Danke (thank you) or Lebkuchen (German Honey Cookies). I spent a lot of time with my Grandma Glienke throughout the year but especially during Weinachten (Christmas). I would help her wrap presents, clean house, put gumdrops on her gumdrop tree, and make cookies. As she aged, it became more of a challenge for her to make all the different types of cookies each year. Luckily, just as I was getting to the age of actually helping and not just “helping”, my mom invited her to come to our house to bake. Not long after, my Grandma Hinkeldey joined us and the four of us joined forces to produce a ridiculous amount of cookies. Sugar cookies, almond cookies (with egg white brushed on top for a shine), peppernuts (German and Danish), peanut butter blossoms, thumbprints (birds nests), snowballs (pecan crescents) and, of course, Lebkuchen.
At that age, I was mostly interested in those with chocolate or frosting. Almonds, pecans, walnuts, nutmeg, and clove had little appeal to me. I helped with those simply to get to the ones I wanted. It was unclear to me why anyone would choose a “plain” honey cookie when they could get a stomach ache over a properly adorned sugar cookie … or three.
Brown is a christmas color
With age comes wisdom. I will still grab a well-frosted sugar cookie when I get the chance … and probably ask you for the frosting off of your cookie too … but brown has become my favorite color for Christmas. Give me molasses, honey, nutmeg, clove, cinnamon, almonds, pecans and hazelnuts. There is a warmth to these ingredients that is so appropriate during this season.
baking lessons with a side of history
In an effort to learn more about this cookie that made an annual appearance on our Christmas scene, I found this article, A Brief History of Lebkuchen: German’s Heart-Shaped Gingerbread Cookie. Dating back to the 13th century, these “honey cakes” continue to be very popular at the German Christmas markets, are typically heart-shaped and often the size of a dinner plate. Gee … sure sad to know that tradition didn’t trickle down.
The recipe has many variations, some sweeter and some with more spice. Some are decorated with frosting and others with nuts. Some are glazed and some have chocolate (NOTE: chocolate is also brown). As with so many recipes, the adaptations are often regional and subject to ingredients that are readily available and/or affordable.
I wish I had asked Grandma more about her memories of making Lebkuchen. When and why did they change from the traditional round or heart-shape cookies to the Christmas shapes like bells and trees? Did she make these with her mom? Her grandma? Were they her favorite cookie?
the ever-important slice of bread
As mentioned above, the tips and tricks of any recipe passed down from generation to generation are priceless. The trick I learned for this recipe from my Grandma Glienke has nothing to do with measuring, mixing, baking or decorating. It is a way to extend the life of these cookies. If you happen to bake the cookies a little too long or if they lose their chewiness and turn hard and crunchy, simply put a few of the cookies in a plastic bag with a slice of bread for an hour. The moisture from the bread will soften the cookies and restore their chewiness. Now that is a valuable lesson.
adding to my notes
Next year I think I will make two changes to this recipe. First, I will use my heart-shaped cookie cutter (the big one). Second, I will incorporate my other favorite brown ingredient into the recipe by dipping some of the cookies in chocolate.
Don’t worry. There will be plenty of bells and trees and stars.
The traditions will continue.