French

The 15th-Century Christmas Cookie Pâtisseries Make All Year

December  1, 2016

Pâtisserie Lerch, sadly long gone, was not the kind of place to make any Paris must-go lists. In fact, it was the kind of place you could pass often and not notice; the window never had anything fancy in it. Actually, now that I think back, I don’t remember ever seeing anything fancy in the shop at all. For sure there was nothing with decoration more intricate than a white-icing ribbon, a sprinkling of sparkle sugar or the occasional dusting of confectioners' sugar.

Pâtisserie Lerch was shielded by a faded awning and had old-fashioned double doors with a heart-shaped wreath on them, the symbol of Alsace. And for people who loved simple sweets—and for those who had a soft spot for the flavors of Alsace—the shop was a slice of the old country. While it was on the same block as the glittery Tour d’Argent and in sight of Notre Dame, it could have been transported to a village in Northeastern France and no one would have suspected it had come from Paris.

It was chez M. Lerch that I first discovered leckerli—sometimes known as lebkuchen and often claimed as a member of the pain d’épices family—​and it was love at first nibble.​ In Alsace and Switzerland, you see leckerli; in Germany as well as parts of northern France, you might see lebkuchen; all over France, you find pain d’épices (often made as a loaf and sometimes made like cookies). But there are more exceptions than there is consistency, so don’t think of this as a rule.

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Whatever you call these cookies, their characteristic ingredients are the same: honey, spices, nuts, often almonds, candied citrus peel and a splash of Kirsch, Grand Marnier, dark rum, or your spirit of druthers. Sometimes leckerli is soft, sometimes crunchy, and sometimes its texture falls in between—think of the Three Bears.

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Top Comment:
“My German-American grandmother, whose family came from Alsace-Lorraine, always had a jar of these cookies in her kitchen. Because she lived in Kansas she used sorghum syrup as a sweetener instead of honey, so that's how we all make them too- my sisters and cousins now living all across the country. Thanks for this recipe, I look forward to trying them.”
— Janice C.
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Historians argue which of the three cookies—leckerli, lebkuchen or pain d’épices —is the oldest, but everyone agrees that the sweets’ origins reach back at least as far as the 15th century. It was then that Leckerli became popular in Basel, Switzerland, explaining why, no matter where you find the cookie, there will be a mention of Basel. In France, the cookie’s full name is ‘leckerli de Bâle’. But the translucent glaze that is often brushed on the cookies when they come out of the oven is new: It was added to the recipe in the 18th century.

The dough for leckerli is much like sticky bread dough—it’s very thick. I mix it by hand with a strong wooden spoon (given the cookie’s history, it seems only right) and always feel like my grandmother when I do. (She made a honey cake that called for the same kind of energetic stirring.) Once mixed and rolled out, the dough needs a good long rest before it’s baked; long, as in up to 2 days.

Of course the leckerli lose some of their chew as time goes on, but the bonus is that they’re then dunkable. For the holidays, my dunkee-of-choice is vin chaud (warm spiced wine with a shot of something stronger), mulled cider, or black tea.

Oh, and while leckerli are usually thought of as Christmas cookies, there’s no reason to limit them to the holidays. Chef Lerch didn’t: His leckerli were on the counter year-round.

9 Comments

Janice C. December 15, 2016
My German-American grandmother, whose family came from Alsace-Lorraine, always had a jar of these cookies in her kitchen. Because she lived in Kansas she used sorghum syrup as a sweetener instead of honey, so that's how we all make them too- my sisters and cousins now living all across the country. Thanks for this recipe, I look forward to trying them.
 
Lara N. December 4, 2016
Basler Läckerli were traditionally eaten at New Years, with some Hypocras (spiced wine). Today they are eaten throughout the year and lots of different variations are available, including chocolate one (try dipping your finished läckerli in chocolate!) :)
 
Alice K. December 2, 2016
My mother-in-law would make chewy-hard little spicy drop cookies at Christmas for many years. She called the pfeffernusse, but I never found a pfeffernusse recipe that was similar. When she passed away, I eagerly looked through her recipe cards for the recipe, but did not find it. These look very promising. Is it possible Mom's beloved dunking cookies were lebkuchen, and not pfeffernusse after all? The proof is in the tasting! Thank you so much!
 
Debbie R. December 4, 2016
In Dutch, these cookies are called Pepernoten. Here's a recipe link: http://www.food.com/recipe/dutch-pepernoten-195547<br />
 
Melanbunny December 4, 2016
I have a tiny little book of recipes (Peppernuts Plain and Fancy https://www.amazon.com/Peppernuts-Plain-Norma-Jost-Voth/dp/0836118774) that might have something similar. Some of them have different names, like Sugar Nuts or Peppercakes, so that might be why it's hard to find the right thing. I found one recipe that looks a lot like your MIL's cookies--it's called "Schmeckfest Prize Peppernuts." It has cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, mace, ginger, cinnamon, and oil of anise.
 
Karen F. December 5, 2016
Pfeffernusse and lebkuchen are two different kinds of spice cookies. What you described are pfeffernusse. My mother was born and raised in Germany and came to the U.S. after WWII. We grew up having all kinds of German goodies at Christmas. Lebkuchen cookies (glazed or chocolate covered) were my favorite. My mom didn't bake them but she bought them at a German specialty food shop in NJ every Christmas. I'm so glad to have this recipe, so I can try making them.
 
Carolina December 18, 2016
My husband's German-Russian family passed down a "pfeffernusse" recipe that looks more like this and the Russian "pryanik" honey cakes. (One iteration of the famliy recipe actually typed it up as "pfefferanise" because of the anise oil). With their dusting of powdered sugar, they resemble popular pfeffernusse, but the flavor and texture are pretty distinctive.
 
ChefJune December 1, 2016
Wow, Dorie! The very first Kugelhopf I ever had was from Patisserie Lerch. I still remember going back there and finding it gone. So disappointing.
 
Jacqueline K. December 1, 2016
I also have a great love for these cookies. Not knowing their proper name, I've searched websites and cookbooks for years. Thank you!