Saturday, December 6, 2008

Christmas 101, by Rick Rodgers; Lebkuchen

Happy St. Nicholas's Day, folks! Chefly Husband and I woke up to find our boots stuffed with goodies. Wine! Chocolate! Maple sugar Santas! Jelly beans!

And most important of all: lebkuchen.

I'd never had lebkuchen before meeting Chefly Husband; though my mom's side of the family is as German as it is Icelandic, the holiday baked goods tended to be more Icelandic than German. And lebkuchen? It very, very German. It can be a bit hard to describe lebkuchen, but... think of it as a cross between a soft gingerbread cookie and a hard gingerbread cake. Picture it glazed, or coated in chocolate. Pair it with marzipan. Or jelly. Or both. (That one? Yeah, that was breakfast this morning.) It's also got a touch of spice cake to it, or fruit cake. It's... it's lebkuchen. It's yummy.

And it's one of the recipes featured in Christmas 101: Celebrate the Holiday Season from Christmas to New Year's, by Rick Rodgers (my first edition copy is © 1999, but it's had several printings since, and you'll see different cover art if you go to buy a copy for yourself). The book will march you through recipes enough for any holiday feast, but also spends a lot of time on cookies (and gift-able candies), and with a bit over a fortnight left before Christmas, it's about time to be thinking of baking cookies. Let's start off with the right cookie for St. Nicholas:
Makes about 40 cookies

Make ahead: The dough must be chilled for at least 4 hours or overnight. The cookies can be baked up to 2 months ahead, stored in airtight containers at room temperature. If possible, store the cookies for at least 3 days before serving.

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup honey
3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1 large egg
Zest of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 cup (4 ounces) very finely chopped walnuts
1/2 cup very finely chopped Candied Orange Peel (page 93) or store-bought candied orange peel

1 cup confectioners' sugar
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon almond extract

1. Sift the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and salt into a medium bowl, and set aside. In a large bowl, whisk the honey, brown sugar, egg, lemon zest and juice, and 2 tablespoons water. Gradually stir in the flour mixture, then the walnuts and candied orange peel. If the dough seems too dry, sprinkle with water; 1 tablespoon at a time, and mix with your hands until moistened. Gather up the dough. Divide the dough into two flat disks and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate until firm and chilled, at least 4 hours or overnight. (If chilled overnight, allow the dough to stand at room temperature for 30 minutes before rolling out. The dough will crack if it is too cold.)

2. Position the racks in the center and top third of the oven and preheat to 375°F.

3. On a lightly floured work surface, roll out one disk of dough into a 1/2-inch rectangle, about 12 x 8 inches. Using a sharp knife, trim the dough to a 7 1/2 x 10-inch rectangle, discarding the trimmings. Cut the dough into 20 bars. Place the bars on nonstick cooking sheets, about 1 inch apart. Repeat the procedure with the remaining dough.

4. Bake, switching the positions of the cookies from top to bottom and back to front halfway through baking, until the edges of the cookies are beginning to brown, about 15 minutes. Transfer to wire cake racks and cool completely.

5. To make the icing, sift the confectioners' sugar into a small bowl. Add the lemon juice and almond extract. Stir in 2 tablespoons water to make a thin, spreadable icing. Using a small metal spatula, spread the icing over the tops of the cookies, and let stand until the icing is dry. (The cookies can be baked up to 2 months ahead, stored in airtight containers at room temperature. If possible, store the cookies for at least 3 days before serving.)
Don't be scared off by all the steps; nothing is very difficult in and of itself, and you can spread out the work over a couple of days.

Eating lebkuchen always makes me think of Chefly Husband. The tins some lebkuchen comes in, though, reminds me of Momma. See, she has this big tin, with a hinged lid, and various old German scenes embossed on it. It was our breadbox when I was growing up, and it remains her breadbox still. She figured out that it had been a cookie tin, but couldn't figure out anything more (we none of us speak German). Lo and behold, I meet Chefly Husband, he gets me seasonally addicted to lebkuchen, and I start noticing the tins they come in. They awful lot like the breadbox. Sure enough, the next time I was home with Mom, I took a closer look at the breadbox and discovered it had, in fact, held lebkuchen in a past life.

And, hey, that Candied Orange Peel reference in the ingredients list? I'll be posting that recipe this week. Good for gift giving, good for lebkuchen!

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