The traditional flavours of German Lebkuchen in a delicious tender loaf. Slather a slice with butter for a taste of an Old World German Christmas.
Oh, the smells of Christmas are starting to curl around the corners and waft through the doorways of our home. I’ve got a few cookies and treats stashed away in the freezer already, and in the last few days I’ve been making batches of this wonderful Lebkuchen. It signifies the advent of Christmas for our family – a custom we adoped from our lovely Swiss friend, Elsa. She gave me this recipe years ago when our children were small, and often gifted me with little packets of the spice mixture and Hirschhornsalz traditionally used to make Lebkuchen, which she’d bring back from Switzerland.
These ingredients can also be found in German import shops. Luckily, Edmonton is home to a large German community, so I can find them locally, but they’re pricey, so I’ve been experimenting with making my own spice mix, combining ingredients listed on two different brands of German Lebkuchen-Gewürz mixes. It’s this particular combination of spices that makes Lebkuchen different from ordinary gingerbread. We think the homemade version tastes just as good as the store bought spice mix, if not better: fresher and more intensely aromatic, and it definitely has that authentic German Christmas spice flavour.
Lebkuchen is a traditional German type of gingerbread, often baked as a honey cake (Honigkuchen), but also very commonly made as thick, flat cookies in round or heart shapes. The cookie version often includes ground nuts and finely chopped candied peel, and may be glazed with icing or chocolate. Lebkuchen cookies are typically sold at the German Christmas Markets and also at Oktoberfests. Nuremberg is honoured as being the home of Lebkuchen, but variations of it can be found all over Germany, often packaged in beautiful collector’s tins.
These Lebkuchen loaves are more like the traditional honey cake Lebkuchen. (My mom makes a delicious Honey Cake – I’ll need to adjust and adapt her recipe, since it makes enough to feed the whole neighbourhood.) When I first started making Elsa’s Lebkuchen Loaves, I used regular flour, but our family has developed a number of food allergies, and I’ve come up with a really good gluten-free variation (below). I’ve even made them without dairy (using a can of coconut milk for the cream and substituting the milk with almond milk), with great results. There are no eggs in the original recipe, so the cake’s egg free, too.
Every year in early December I make a batch or two of Lebkuchen Loaves, wrapping some and freezing them for later. It’s become a teatime treat to slather a slice of Lebkuchen with salted butter. I have to restrain myself from having ‘teatime’ too often during the day! A slice of this loaf is also pretty amazing when spread with almond butter or coconut oil and eaten for breakfast. The cake is made with cream instead of butter and has a very fine and tender crumb. The flavour brings me right back to my childhood, opening up those tins of wonderful Lebkuchen, imported from Germany and reserved as a special treat.
Leben means ‘life’ in German, and Kuchen means ‘cake’. And what’s life without cake?
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Kitchen Frau Notes: Hirschhornsalz is an Old World leavening/raising agent still used in some German or European baking. It is also called baker’s ammonia, ammonia bicarbonate, ammonia carbonate, ammonium bicarbonate, or hartshorn (the ground horns of harts or male deer). Baking soda/sodium bicarbonate works as a substitute. Hirschhornsalz is commonly used in lebkuchen cookies, as it helps give them the nice shiny brown tops. It has a very strong, unpleasant odour when first heated, which totally dissipates once the baking is finished. It can be purchased in many European or German import stores.
Lebkuchen spice mix contains ground anise or fennel and ground star anise, lending it the complex and aromatic spice profile which is so specific and unique to traditional German Lebkuchen cookies. You can purchase ready-mixed lebkuchen spices in European or German import stores, but I’ve included a recipe below to make your own which is just like the pre-packaged mix, only fresher and cheaper.
For a less sweet cake, more breadlike if using it for breakfast, I sometimes reduce the sugar to 1½ cups/315gms.
egg-free, with gluten-free & dairy-free options
- 1⅔ cups (400ml) heavy cream (full fat canned coconut milk for dairy-free)
- 1⅔ cups (400ml) milk (plant milk for dairy free)
- 2 cups (420gms) sugar
- ½ cup (120ml) fancy/light molasses
- 4 tablespoons (30gms) lebkuchen spice mixture (*see below for homemade mix)
- ½ teaspoon salt (optional)
- 2 teaspoons hirschhornsalz (ammonium bicarbonate) or baking soda
- 5 cups (700gms) flour (**or see below for the gluten-free flour mix to use instead)
Grease two large loaf tins (5 x 9 x 2¾ inches/ 13 x 23 x 7 cms) and flour the bottoms (use tapioca starch for the gluten-free option).
Stir together the cream, milk, sugar, and molasses in a large bowl.
Add the lebkuchen spice mix, salt, and hirschhornsalz or baking soda, and whisk until well combined.
Last, add the flour and stir until you have a smooth, light batter.
Divide the batter between the two prepared loaf tins. Place into a cold oven and turn the temperature up to 390°F (200°C).
Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
Let cool for 10 minutes in the pans, then remove and let cool on a rack.
Makes 2 loaves. (Freezes well.)
*Homemade Lebkuchen Spice Mix
Note: You can buy any of the following spices whole, and grind them yourself in a coffee grinder before measuring them, if you don’t already have them in your spice cupboard pre-ground.
- 4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 3 teaspoons ground coriander
- 1 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1 teaspoon ground anise seeds
- 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1 teaspoon ground star anise or fennel seeds
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
Stir all spices together.
Makes 30 grams/4 tablespoons, enough for one batch of Lebkuchen loaves, above.
**Gluten Free Flour Mix for Lebkuchen Loaves
Use the weight measures for the most accurate results.
- 1 cup (130gms) sorghum flour
- 1 cup ( 145gms) light buckwheat flour (or millet flour)
- 1 cup (160gms) potato starch
- 1 cup (130gms) tapioca starch
- ¾ cup + 1 tablespoon (135gms) sweet rice flour
- 1¼ teaspoons xanthan gum
Whisk all ingredients together. Pass through a sieve to remove any small lumps.
Makes 700 grams gluten-free flour, equivalent to 5 cups of regular all-purpose flour.
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