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.
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.
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.
For the cookies
- 2/3 cup (160ml) honey
- 1/2 cup (100g) sugar
- 1/2 cup candied orange peel, homemade or store-bought, finely chopped
- Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
- 2 cups plus 2 tablespoons (287g) all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 cup sliced almonds, unblanched or blanched
- 2 tablespoons kirsch, Grand Marnier, or dark rum (optional)
For the glaze
- 1/2 cup (60g) confectioners' sugar, sifted
- 1 1/2 tablespoons water
- 1 tablespoon kirsch, Grand Marnier, dark rum, or water