Lebkuchen

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Preparation info

  • Difficulty

    Medium

  • Dough Yield: About

    5.16 lb

Appears in

Bread

By Jeffrey Hamelman

Published 2004

  • About

During my First Baking Job in the 1970's, we made traditional German Lebkuchen (“life cakes”) at Christmas. All the bakery breads were worked up on the top of an old wooden pétrin—a sturdy affair on wheels, with a heavy wooden lid that one could slide off. Beneath the lid was a trough, where now-anonymous bakers had formerly mixed their doughs by hand, before the advent of mechanical mixers. Sometime in September, we mixed together good honey and white rye flour and left it in the trough of the pétrin until December. For weeks we would work up dough on the lid of the pétrin while beneath our steady hands the honey dough was aging. A few weeks before Christmas we would remove the honey dough and mix the final dough by adding ground spices, leaveners, egg yolks and milk, and sometimes chopped nuts. Once baked, the Lebkuchen were wrapped and again aged for at least a week before being displayed for sale. Any stray loaves that didn’t sell were good to eat for many weeks into the New Year, thanks largely to the hygroscopic nature of the honey.

U.S. Metric Home
White-Rye Flour 2.2 lb 1 kg 1 lb, 1.6 oz (4⅜ cups)
Honey 2.2 lb 1 kg 1 lb, 1.6 oz ( cups)
Egg Yolks 4.2 oz 120 g 2.1 oz (¼ cup)
Ammonium*, Dissolved in Milk .4 oz (1 T, 1 tsp) 10 g .2 oz (2 tsp)
Potash*, Dissolved in Milk .1 oz (1 tsp) 4 g .05 oz (½ tsp)
Lemon Zest 2 Lemons 2 Lemons 1 Lemon
Salt .3 oz 10 g .2 oz (1 tsp)
Candied Orange Peel, Diced 2.1 oz 60 g 1 oz (2 T, Packed)
Currants 2.1 oz 60 g 1 oz (¼ cup)
Cinnamon, Ground 1.6 oz (8 T) 46 g .8 oz (4 T)
Coriander, Ground .6 oz (4 T) 18 g .3 oz (2 T)
Anise Seed, Ground Or Whole .6 oz (2 T, 2 tsp, Unground) 18 g .3 oz (1 T, 1 tsp, Unground)
Nutmeg, Ground .1 oz (1 tsp) 2 g .05 oz (½ tsp)
Black Pepper, Ground .1 oz (1 tsp) 2 g .05 oz (½ tsp)
Total Yield 5.16 lb 2.35 kg 2 lb, 9.3 oz

* The potash and ammonium are placed in separate bowls. Add just enough milk to dissolve them, using a whisk. Potash can be replaced with baking soda at the same weight. Ammonium can be replaced with baking powder at the same rate. The resulting Lebkuchen may not be quite as light, but for many bakers there are no alternatives. Ammonium is easy to procure, but potash is hard to come by in the U. S. web search might turn up some sources.

Note: Some of the roundings in the U.S.A. and Home columns are not exact based on the Metric column. For instance, ammonium has been rounded up, while potash and salt have been rounded down. When using ingredients in minute amounts, the metric system emphatically shows itself as the best possible way to scale ingredients. It’s easy, for example, to weigh 2 g; not nearly as easy to weigh its equivalent: .07 oz.

Method

  1. First Mixing: 2 to 4 months before baking the Lebkuchen, heat the honey to almost the boiling point. Cool slightly (10 to 15 minutes), add the rye flour and mix to a smooth paste. It’s easiest to do this using the paddle attachment of a mixer, but it can be done by hand. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and leave in a cool, dark environment.
  2. Final Dough Mixing: Whisk the spices, salt, and lemon zest into the yolks. Add a little milk, if necessary, so that the mixture isn’t chunky; it should be thick but smooth. Mix the candied orange peel and the currants together. Break (or slice or chop) the honey dough into egg-size pieces and put into the bottom of the mixing bowl. Put the yolk and spice mixture on top of the dough. With the paddle attachment in place, turn the mixer on first speed and raise the bowl from the lowered position (the dough will be quite firm, and by starting with the bowl low and the paddle moving there will be less stress on the mixer). Mix and scrape the bowl and paddle until the yolk mixture has been incorporated into the honey dough. Add the ammonium and the milk in which it dissolved. Mix and scrape. Add the potash and its milk. Scrape the dough as needed. As it becomes a uniform paste, check its firmness. Make small additions of milk to obtain a dough that is moderately firm but not dry. When satisfied with the dough consistency, add the orange peel and the currants. Mix only until they are evenly incorporated, scraping the sides and paddle of the mixer as necessary.
  3. Dividing and Shaping: Once mixed, keep a bowl of water close by, and use moistened hands to divide the dough into pieces to fit small loaf pans or cake pans. Loaf pans with dimensions of 6.5 by 3.5 inches hold about 12.5 oz (350 grams) of dough. Butter and flour the pans thoroughly. Lining the bottoms of cake or loaf pans with parchment paper can make removal of the Lebkuchen easier after the bake. Loaf pans larger than 8 by 4 inches, or cake pans larger than 6 inches are not recommended, as the Lebkuchen may darken excessively due to a lengthy bake time. Press the scaled out dough evenly into the loaf or cake pans. Decorate the tops with blanched almonds if desired.
  4. Baking: Bake in a 365°F oven for 15 minutes. Lower the temperature to 350°F and bake an additional 20 minutes, or longer depending upon the weight of the dough in the pans. A full bake is necessary or the loaves may sag in the center. A good squeeze of the sidewalls helps to determine doneness—the sidewalls should be firm.
  5. Glazing: A good and easy glaze that gives an effective shine is made by mixing 1 ounce (30 g) cornstarch in a small amount of cold water (potato starch can substitute for cornstarch). Heat 1 quart (1 liter) of water and when it comes to the boil stir in the cornstarch slurry. Brush the hot glaze on the hot Lebkuchen.
  6. Storage: Once cool, wrap the Lebkuchen in plastic wrap and then foil. Store in a cool, dark place for at least 1 week before slicing. The wrapped Lebkuchen will keep well for several weeks. In fact, I’ve eaten well-wrapped Lebkuchen that were many months old and been happily surprised by the moistness.