So we’re in week 22 or 23 of our 12 week building project now, with the few final jobs dragging on and on. But the good news is that we got a kitchen back in the past few weeks. We’ve now got it in pretty usable order.
It’s a fairly slow process getting used to a new kitchen: the layout, your workflow in the space, the new equipment. In this case, the only new kit we got was an oven. As a baker, this is obvious the most important thing. Especially as, suddenly, we seem to be poised on the verge of that annual blow-out that is Christmas.
Now, I love seasonal and festival specialities, and over the years I’ve enjoyed trying various international seasonal baked goods like stollen, panettone and kringle. I did the latter, a Scandinavian sweet bread, while living in Italy, and the panettone, the classic Italian sweet seasonal bread, while living in England. I’m in the process of revising my panettone recipe but in the meantime, I wanted to try another classic European Christmas baked treat – lebkuchen, the traditional German biscuit or small cake that’s related to other European sweets like British gingerbread biscuits and cakes, Danish honning hjerter (honey hearts), Polish Toruń pierniki, and various international spice and honey cakes.
As biscuits, these were considerably less of a challenge than an enriched dough when trying to get used to a new oven.*
Lebkuchen were a big part of our Christmas eating when I was younger – perhaps strangely as we’re thoroughly English. But my dad had business partners in Switzerland and Germany and the latter would send us a bag or tin of these spicy, soft German biscuits every year, possibly starting in 1979. Indeed, one large tin, decorated with seasonal scenes, is still in use by my parents as a biscuit tin 15 or so years after it was gifted to them.
Despite enjoying them over the years, I’d never tried to make them. So it was nice to see a recipe in The Guardian’s Cook section last week, from 2013 Great British Bake Off contestant and now newspaper food writer Ruby Tandoh. This was the first of Tandoh’s recipes I’d tried, if memory serves, and it worked well. I tweaked a few things though, partly as I like a tad more spice than she was suggesting, and as I’m pretty sure lebkuchen need honey in them.
I would also say the spice mix is up to you. Yes, they need ginger, but you can mix up the other spices to taste: basically you’re going for that medieval winter feast vibe, and traditionally lebkuchen can involve aniseed, allspice, cinnamon, cloves. As fresh spices are always more alive with flavour, if you have a small spice grinder or pestle and mortar, that’s great.
Here’s the original recipe on The Guardian’s site, and here’s my tweaked version:
120g unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
160g plain flour
1 t baking powder
5 t ground ginger
1/2 t cinnamon
6 whole cloves cloves
2 cardamom pods (freshly ground)
1/2 t aniseeds (freshly ground)
100g ground almonds
80g soft light brown sugar
A pinch of salt
2 large egg yolks
60g runny honey
100g icing sugar
1. Preheat your oven to 180C (fan oven)
2. Grind any fresh spices you’re using.
3. Sieve together the flour, baking powder and all the spices into a large bowl, discarding any big bits of cardamom pod etc.
4. Rub in the butter, until it resembles crumbs.
5. Add the ground almonds, sugar and salt to the flour and spice mix.
6. In a separate bowl, beat together the honey and egg yolks.
8. Take lumps of the dough and roll into a ball. Ruby said “conker-sized” pieces, but as any British schoolchild of a certain age will know, conkers can seriously vary in size so I scaled mine at 30g. This resulted in 19 perfectly sized biscuits.
9. Squash the balls with your palms, flattening them out on lined baking sheets leaving some space between for expansion.
10. Bake for about 8 minutes then swap the trays around on the shelves so they bake evenly.
11. Bake for another 8 minutes or so – you want them nicely coloured, but not too dark. This will depend on the fierceness of your oven.
12. While they’re still baking, sieve the icing sugar into a small bowl then add a small dribble of water, about 20g, or 2 or 2 T. You want a runny, but not too runny, icing.
13. When the biscuits are baked, leave them on their trays and glaze by brushing on the icing “liberally”.
* A Rangemaster Professional + 110 Induction. My first impression is, sadly, that the ovens heat up slowly and are a good 10C less hot than it says on the dial. I should do a proper review at some stage as it’s not like you buy new cookers often, and it’s not like you can try before you buy.