One of my favourite Christmas treats is the German Elisenlebkuchen, packed with nuts, citrus peel and spice, and the base coated in dark chocolate and finished with a sugar glaze that takes on a frosty appearance. They are pretty much Christmas in a biscuit.
Now, if I’m going to dare to call these things Elisenlebkuchen, then I need to be careful what goes into them. I earn some credit for the hazelnuts, walnuts, almonds, various spices and lemon and orange peel I’ve used, but I would have scored a great big fat zero if I had let just one dash of flour get anywhere near them. As a mark of quality, these things are made wheat-free. As a result, they have a fairly flat shape, but the flavour is rich and the texture soft and dense.
My fondness for these is in part due to what goes into them – nuts, spices and candied peel. However, it is also due to the fact that they are one of the first biscuits I got to know. Unlike today, when we’ve got easy access to foreign Christmas goodies, it used to take a bit of work. Panettone, marrons glacés and Lebkuchen had to be searched out, found only in places familiar to those in the know. So it was with these biscuits. The specific brand I loved were Bahlsen Contessa, and they were sold in a branch of Spar where my grandmother lived. The German woman who ran the shop had a few of them in at the end of the year, so no visit was complete without a trip to pick up a box of Lebkuchen. I liked to pick off the chocolate and then eat the soft cake bit.
While there are rules about what you can use, you still have some scope to play around. Various recipes seemed to suggest using just almonds, but I wanted to add a bit more depth to my attempt, so I used equal parts of hazelnuts, walnuts and almonds. For the candied peel, I changed the common 50/50 mixture of orange and lemon, using mostly orange, and relying on fresh lemon zest to provide the zing.
And finally, the spices. The traditional approach is to use Lebkuchengewürz (Lebkuchen spices). However, I had run out of this so I let my creativity run wild. Cinnamon, cloves, mace, ginger, cardamom, star anise and a dash of white pepper went in there. You can go with whatever you like, but I would aim for mostly cinnamon with just a dash of the more powerful spices. Also keep in mind that the flavour will mature as they are stored, getting stronger with time, so if you go with lots of really forceful spices such as cloves or black pepper, you might send your guests running to the kitchen for water. Going heavy on nutmeg, coriander or cardamom, in contrast, probably invokes less of a risk!
When it comes to finishing these Lebkuchen, you’ve also got a few options. They often feature whole almonds arranged either individually or in a circle on top. They can be left as they are, or coated with a simple glaze of icing sugar and hot water. This has a magical effect when you leave it overnight, taking on a white, frosted appearance. Alternatively, you can coat them entirely in dark chocolate, which works wonderfully well with the citrus and spices. I went from something that combined the two – the glaze on top, with a layer of chocolate on the bottom.
If you buy these, they tend to be on the large side, around palm-sized. I made them more bite-sized. Which…arguably means…you can enjoy twice as many. I think all in all, they take a fair bit of time to make (you need to allow for overnight drying of the icing, and then fiddling about with tempering chocolate and so on) but nothing is particularly difficult and the result is really delicious.
To make Elisenlebkuchen (makes 32):
For the biscuits:
• 3 eggs
• 150g soft light brown sugar
• 75g white caster sugar
• 200g ground nuts (walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts)
• 25g flaked almonds, crushed
• 100g candied peel, very finely chopped
• 1 lemon, zest only
• 1 1/2 teaspoons mixed spice
• pinch of salt
• 1/2 teaspoon baker’s ammonia
For the glaze:
• 100g icing sugar
• 2 tablespoons boiling water
• 250g dark chocolate
1. Preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F). Line four baking trays with greaseproof paper, and rub each very lightly with oil.
2. Separate the eggs. In a bowl over a pan of barely simmering water, beat the yolks with the brown sugar until pale and fluffy (around 3 minutes).
3. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites until you have soft peaks. Add the caster sugar, and whisk on a high speed until you have a stiff meringue.
4. Fold the meringue into the egg yolk mixture in three batches. Stir in the ground nuts, crushed flaked almonds, candied peel, lemon zest, spice, salt and baker’s ammonia.
5. Transfer the mixture to a piping bag, and pipe out rounds onto the trays (I did eight per sheet – each one around 4cm diameter).
6. Bake the biscuits for 20 minutes, turning the tray mid-way through, until they are puffed up and browned. When done, remove from the oven, allow to cool and remove from the paper and cool on a wire tray.
7. Once all the biscuits are baked, make the glaze by mixing the icing sugar with the boiling water. Brush the glaze onto the domed side of the biscuits, and leave overnight to dry (the glaze should dry fairly quickly, and take on a “frosted” appearance by the next morning).
8. Finally, melt the chocolate and use to coat the flat side of the Lebkuchen.
Worth making? Definitely. These taste pretty much like the pure essence of Christmas, and well worth the time they take.