In this age of materialism and store-bought cookie dough, the pomp that surrounds the Advent season and Christmas in Germany is quite heartening to traditionalists like me. Almost every single person, young or old, that I know in Germany heads to the kitchen to bake Christmas cookies in late November—even those who spend the rest of the year firmly on the opposite side of the house as the oven.
Christmas cookies in Germany are decidedly different from the cookies made and enjoyed during the rest of the year. Their dependence on warming, wintry spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom, and allspice and ingredients like honey gives them away, along with their relative sturdiness: Once baked, they must last at least a few weeks.
Advent starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, and the weeks leading up mark the official start of the German baking season. On Advent Sundays, friends and family come over in the afternoon for tea and coffee paired with a generous assortment of Christmas cookies rather than the usual cakes or tortes; we enjoy them by candlelight, since at that time of year daylight is usually gone by midafternoon.
But besides having enough treats around to feed a group on weekends, it’s also traditional to present gifts of homemade cookies packaged in little cellophane bags to colleagues, friends, and family—bags full of cookies like honeyed Lebkuchen, sandy almond Kipferl, cinnamon-flavored macaroons, crunchy Spekulatius, aniseed Springerle, and what may be my very favorite, chewy Elisenlebkuchen coated in chocolate or a craquelé sugar glaze.
Historical texts show that Lebkuchen—a blanket term for gingerbread in German—have been in production since at least the thirteenth century. There’s no real consensus on where the word leb comes from, but the most likely etymological explanation is that it is derived from the Latin libum, meaning "pancake."Elisenlebkuchen hail from the Bavarian city of Nuremnberg and are soft and chewy round cookies baked on thin wafers called Oblaten; they can run anywhere from saucer-size (perhaps the most traditional) to bite-size depending on the size of the wafer used as the base.
Usually covered in a thin glaze, either sugar or chocolate, Elisenlebkuchen are considered the finest and richest of all German Lebkuchen varieties, of which there are dozens (also called Honigkuchen, "honey cake", or Pfefferkuchen, "pepper cake", depending on their geographical origins). Their high nut and almond paste content makes them on the pricey side to bake—but if Christmas isn't a time to indulge, I don't know when is.
Elisenlebkuchen are flourless—though not gluten-free unless you can find gluten-free Oblaten— and studded with tiny pieces of candied citrus peel. Their high ground nut and almond paste content helps keep them moist and chewy, and their lack of flour makes not only a delightfully textured cookie, but also one that keeps incredibly well.
Compared to some of the other Lebkuchen varieties—which, due to their high honey content, have very stiff doughs that can be difficult to work with or need a ripening time of a few months (!)Elisenlebkuchen are quite simple to make. If you have a pair of electric beaters and a big bowl, you've got all you need. The work of spreading the batter on the wafers and coating the finished Elisenlebkuchen with a glaze after baking is a little fussy, but the payoff is definitely worth it.
And best of all if you plan to give these away, the cookies taste best after at least a few days of ripening once baked, the spices and winey almond flavor intensifying as they sit. Their texture improves too, becoming almost juicy and addictively chewy. And for a particularly lovely homemade Christmas gift, why not look online for vintage Lebkuchen tins? Fill them with an assortment of Elisenlebkuchen, and send them off.
Elisenlebkuchen (Glazed Flourless Nuremberg Lebkuchen)
- 5 eggs
- 1 3/4 (350g) granulated sugar
- 7 ounces (200g) almond paste
- 3 tablespoons Lebkuchengewürz (see below)
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- Grated peel of 1 organic lemon
- 2/3 cup (100g) candied orange peel, finely chopped
- 2/3 cup (100g) candied citron peel, finely chopped
- 2 lightly packed cups (200g) toasted, skinned, and ground hazelnuts, plus more if needed
- 2 lightly packed cups (200g) ground almonds, plus more if needed
- 2/3 cup (100g) blanched whole almonds, finely chopped
- Blanched almonds, split lengthwise (optional)
- 13 tablespoons (100g) confectioners’ sugar (optional)
- 1/4 cup (60ml) water (optional)
- 7 ounces (200g) bittersweet chocolate (55% to 70% cacao; optional)
- 60 2-inch/5cm, or 10 2 3⁄4-inch/7cm baking wafers (optional but recommended!)
Lebkuchengewürz (Lebkuchen Spice Mix)
- 5 tablespoons ground cinnamon
- 1 1/2 tablespoons ground cloves
- 1 teaspoon ground allspice
- 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon ground mace
- 3/4 teaspoon ground aniseed