Lebkuchen (or Pfefferkuchen) is a traditional German baked Christmas treat, somewhat resembling gingerbread.
Lebkuchen were invented by Medieval monks in Franconia, Germany in the 13th century. Lebkuchen bakers were recorded as early as 1296 in Ulm, and 1395 in Nürnberg (Nuremberg). The latter being the most famous exporter today, of the product that is known as Nürnberger Lebkuchen (Nürnberg Lebkuchen).
Local history in Nuremberg relates that emperor Friedrich III held a Reichstag there in 1487 and he invited the children of the city to a special event where he presented Lebkuchen bearing his printed portrait to almost four thousand children.
Historically, and due to differences in the ingredients, Lebkuchen is also known as honey cake (de:Honigkuchen) or pepper cake (de:Pfefferkuchen). Traditionally, the cookies are usually quite large and may be four and a half inches in diameter if round, and larger if rectangular.
Sometimes Lebkuchen is packaged in richly decorated tins, chests, and boxes which have become nostalgic collector items. Lebkuchen range in taste from spicy to sweet and come in a variety of shapes with round being the most common. The ingredients usually include honey, spices such as aniseed, coriander, cloves, ginger, cardamom, and allspice, nuts including almonds, hazelnuts, and walnuts, or candied fruit. The proportion or content of the type of nuts often determines the value. Salt of Hartshorn and Potash are often used for raising the dough. Lebkuchen dough is usually placed on a thin wafer base called Oblate. This was an idea of the monks, who used unleavened communion wafer ingredients to prevent the dough from sticking. Typically, they are glazed or covered with very dark chocolate, but some are left uncoated.
The forerunner of today’s Lebkuchen was called the “honey cake” and its history can be traced back to the Egyptians, the Greeks, and the Romans. They believed that honey, the only sweetener widely available to them, was a gift of the deities and had magical and healing powers. Honey cakes were also worn as a talisman in battle or as protection against evil spirits.
Honigkuchenpferd – the only figure made as Lebkuchen
Since 1808, a variety of Nürnberg Lebkuchen of high quality (no flour) has been called Elisenlebkuchen. It is uncertain whether the name Elise refers to the daughter of a gingerbread baker or the wife of a margrave. Her name is associated with the finest of the Lebkuchen produced by members of the guild. Since 1996, de:Nürnberger Lebkuchen is a Protected Designation of Origin and must be produced within the boundaries of the city.
Lebkuchen is usually soft, but a harder type of Lebkuchen is used to produce Lebkuchen Hearts, usually inscribed with icing, which are available at many German fairs, and the witch houses made popular because of the fairy tales about Hansel and Gretel. The closest German equivalent of the gingerbread man is the Honigkuchenpferd (honey cake horse).
The etymology of the term Lebkuchen is uncertain. Derivations from the Latin libum (flat bread) and from the Germanic word Laib (loaf) have been proposed. Another likely possibility is that it comes from the old term Leb-Honig, the rather solid crystallized honey taken from the hive, that can not be used for much beside baking. Folk etymology often associates the name with Leben (life), Leib (body), or Liebspeise (favorite food).
Christmas Cookies 101 – Lebkuchen