James Beard's Recipe Box: Lebkuchen

lebkuchen Welcome to our third guest post about cooking from James Beard’s American Cookery. In this installment, JBF Award–winning journalist Rebekah Denn marks the holiday season with lebkuchen. (You can find the guest post archive here.) Like so many others, I came to lebkuchen at the Christmas table. I came sort of late. After all, as one of three observant Jews in my entire school system (the other two being my brother and sister), I was known as the girl who didn’t have a Christmas tree. My parents prefer to remember our small-town Chanukah fame as “the kids who got presents eight nights in a row.” We all have our own ways of coping. My mother-in-law was the first to introduce me to lebkuchen—thick, cakey cookies that are sweetened with honey and generously spiced—sending a tin of the marvelous holiday treats to our home when my husband and I settled in Seattle. Then friends invited us to their Christmas dinner and put out a plate of lebkuchen at the end. The children played, the adults drank coffee, the lights sparkled on the tree. It was the cap to a nostalgically sweet day for my husband, who did grow up with a Christmas tree—and a feeling that the day should be marked with special things. Our friends are out of town this December, so we’re on our own to figure out how to mark Christmas. It’s not easy. I want my husband to share the joys of his own childhood with his children—that’s some of the magic payback of parenthood. But when I think about putting a tinsel-strewn tree in my own living room, or throwing our own Christmas party, my gut says no. It feels as foreign to me as mixing milk and meat does to my dad. So our children will light candles on the menorah and spin dreidels; they will not have a tree. But on page 719 of the new edition of James Beard’s American Cookery, I found a recipe for making our own lebkuchen. That’s something that could say Christmas to all of us—and Beard even recommends dunking them in coffee. I like that Beard included the cookie, a centuries-old tradition in Germany, in this classic book on the American table. He knew that customs morph as generations and geography change, warning that a lebkuchen recipe will vary greatly “depending on the nationality of the baker or which Central European country she borrowed the recipe from.” Indeed, Beard’s version proved quite different from others I’ve had, which, in turn, are different from each other. His are spiked with cloves, cinnamon, and candied orange peel. They bear a pebbled surface, and are lighter in color and denser in texture than most. (Beard also says to cut them into bars; most bakers shape them into circles.) I tried the recipe twice, measuring once by hand and once with a digital scale. Both times the dough needed a bit of extra moisture to hold together. Otherwise, the recipe proved simple: boil honey, brown sugar, shortening, and salt. Add this mixture to the dry ingredients, stir in almonds and candied fruit. Roll out, cut, bake, cool, glaze. Beard says to store the cookies from two to six weeks. They improve with age. Start soon and they’ll be perfect for your own table on December 25, however you mark the day. Seattle-based food writer Rebekah Denn is a regular contributor to the Seattle Times, Sunset magazine, the Christian Science Monitor, and other publications. She was awarded the 2009 James Beard Award for newspaper feature writing and the 2007 James Beard Award for restaurant criticism. Her website is eatallaboutit.com.

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