2008-12-08

Lebkuchen or honey cake

Lebkuchen* is a German honey cake which I make as part of a family Christmas tradition.

Normally, I'll make some right after Thanksgiving and let it sit in a closed tin while the flavors meld. In my opinion, lebkuchen usually tastes best after Christmas which suggests that I could start even earlier.

The recipes that I use have candied fruit in them, the same as in the infamous fruitcake that is passed from one family to the next each year but never eaten. So, to the uninitiated it starts with a strike against it. Three actually, if you count the name and the fact that there's no chocolate in it. For those reasons it seems to be an acquired taste. Fortunately I have acquired the taste for it, or at least the tradition of it. At its best, lebkuchen is soft, chewy, fragrant, and sweet, with a little citrus bite that is a nice counterpoint to the sweet.

When I was little I enjoyed lebkuchen cookies at Christmas time that were made by Grandma (Oma). Family lore has it that Opa made her try many recipes before he found a recipe that reminded him of the cookies he'd had a child in Germany. The recipe that they settled on is from The Jewish Cookbook (it's actual name, so I am told).

I remember that many years I picked little bits of eggshell from the cookies. When I asked Oma about it, she told me that the recipe was difficult. I had visions of exotic yolk separation techniques or maybe even something wilder, but it turns out that the recipe is actually quite simple. It's just that Oma’s dedication and love exceeded her skill sometimes.

Lebkuchen from The Jewish Cookbook

Beat 4 eggs until light, add 2 cups brown sugar and beat well. Sift together 2 cups flour and 1 teaspoon of baking powder with 1 teaspoon of cinnamon. Add 2 oz of finely cut citron, and 1/4 pound of chopped walnuts to the flour. Stir into the egg mixture, and blend well. Spread the dough 1 and 1/2 inches thick in greased pans. Bake in a moderate oven, 350 F, for about 30 minutes, or until done. Cool, spread with White Icing, and cut into bars. Lebkuchen and Honey Cakes should be stored a week before using.

I always use a lemon glaze (lemon juice with powdered sugar) in place of the white icing recommended above.

This recipe is a bit too subtle in flavor for my tastes, though according to Opa it was "just right". My notes from an earlier year say that when I adhered strictly to the recipe I found that I would have preferred a bit more spice flavor. That part about "until done" is a bit amusing too. It's often difficult to tell without close inspection whether lebkuchen is overcooked or not.

Because there's virtually no fat in the recipe, my normal calibration for doneness that is trained on cakes is not reliable for lebkuchen, as I've found to my chagrin in 2 out of 3 recent years. To me, lebkuchen appears slightly under done when it is actually ready to be removed from the oven. This year I overcooked it slightly (even though I was close to the suggested 30 minutes time in oven) and that contributed a poorer rendition of this recipe than I had anticipated. I would suggest 25 minutes in the oven at most. I've yet to try fixing an over cooked lebkuchen with a little kirshwasser, rose water, or other liquid.

A recipe more to my taste comes from the LA Times, who some years ago had a feature article on Lebkuchen in their food section.

Raisin Lebkuchen from the LA Times

3/4 cup brown sugar, packed
1 egg
1 cup honey
1 tablespoon grated lemon peel
1 teaspoon lemon juice
2 3/4 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 cup golden raisins
1 cup blanched silvered almonds, toasted
1/2 cup chopped candied fruit peel
1/2 cup chopped citron
Lemon Glaze

Beat egg and sugar together until smooth and fluffy in large bowl. Add honey, lemon peel and juice. Beat well.
Sift together flour, baking soda, salt, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves. Gradually add to egg-sugar mixture on low speed of electric mixer.
Stir in raisins, almonds, candied peel and citron. Spread batter in greased 15x10-inch baking pan.
Bake at 375F for 18 to 20 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool slightly, then brush with lemon glaze and cut into pieces.
Remove pieces when cool and store in sealed container for at least a week.


The LA Times recipe is very flexible and forgiving. I've used it with regular raisins and currants substituted for the golden raisins. I've eliminated the candied fruit peel, and I've used walnuts instead of almonds and both the recipes work well. The only crucial part of both recipes is not to overcook the lebkuchen. This point can't be emphasized enough - don't overcook the lebkuchen!

You'll be storing the cut pieces of lebkuchen in a sealed container for at least a week, preferably two or more, before the flavors start to meld, and it picks up a softer texture. In order make the pieces look best, you should apply the lemon glaze and then slice the pieces while the glaze is still liquid. Leave the glaze to solidify and then slice again along the same cuts and remove the pieces from the pan. Cutting the lebkuchen like this prevents big chunks of the white frosting from being pulled out by the knife.



Origin of the name

Lebkuchen has at least two interpretations of its name. In modern German it is literally "liver cake", perhaps a reference to its color (gray to brown from the honey or brown sugar which is perhaps reminiscent of cooked liver). But a historical perspective suggests that it really means “heart cake”. This quote, in Old High German, which I found on the web some time ago suggests that while today "leber" means liver, that "leb" once upon a time meant heart, perhaps a reference to the sustaining powers of the dish.

Interessant ist, wenn man die Parallele zum "Leb"kuchen zieht. "Leb" hei├čt "Herz". Der Lebkuchen ist also ein Kuchen in Herzform. Somit ist das "Lebkuchenherz" eigentlich eine Tautologie.