My Spicy Cookie Love + Lebkuchen Recipe
What is your favorite holiday cookie? Which cookie sums up for you the very idea of Christmas and the holidays? Cut-out sugar cookies with sprinkles? Gingerbread people? Or perhaps amaretti, spritz, or Speculaas? For much of my life, my answer would have been molasses-spice cookies of some sort, the spicier the better (and oh, how I do still love those!). But back in 2009, I tried the one cookie that would supplant them all in my mind as the holidays’ quintessential cookie—Lebkuchen.
If you’re already familiar with lebkuchen, then you know that it’s another form of spice cookie (hey, I wasn’t going to wander that far from my favorite path!). But I believe that this German cookie is different enough from other variants to warrant being in its own category. For one, it’s made almost entirely of ground nuts with little to no flour. This results in a delicate cookie that is typically baked on something like a large communion wafer to help hold it together. For another, its traditional list of spices has a very European bent and includes coriander, cardamom and star anise. They also contain copious and, to me at least, delightful amounts of orange and lemon zest. They are then finished with a simple glaze of confectioners’ sugar or chocolate.
But now, a confession: the lebkuchen that I have made yearly since 2009 is from Cook’s Illustrated and is a decidedly Americanized version. It does contain some flour, so the oblaten wafers are unnecessary. The spices are also limited to three: cinnamon, cardamom, and nutmeg rather than the eight or so in the traditional Lebkuchengewürz (German gingerbread spice). It contains lots of ground nuts and the requisite lemon and orange zest, though over the years I’ve amped up the orange quite a bit. This version was my first introduction to this marvelous cookie, and I love it to my bones. One day, I would like to make the more traditional German version, but up to now this German-American cookie recipe has brought me more joy than any other holiday treat out there.
Now for another confession: Lebkuchen is not a quickly dashed-off cookie; it’s a project no matter how you look at it. The dough is chilled several hours and once baked and cooled, the glaze must have time to set properly. I usually spread the steps out over a couple of days, because I find that quite convenient—I mix up the dough in the morning, let chill through the afternoon, bake, and then glaze in the evening, letting them dry overnight. You could shorten the time even more by forming the dough balls before chilling, and they’ll firm up even more quickly. However, if you don’t mind losing these cookies’ thick and chewy consistency for a flatter and firmer cookie, you could skip the chilling and be that much closer to spice cookie heaven.
Lebkuchen (German Spice Cookies)
Nuts, spices, citrus…these are some of my favorite holiday scents and flavors. I could hardly have ordered into existence a more perfect cookie. I look forward to them all year—as much as Christmas lights, hot chocolate, and the Polar Express!
Adapted lightly from The Best International Recipe, by the Editors of Cook’s Illustrated.
Makes about 36 cookies
6 oz. (1 1/4 c.) hazelnuts
6 oz. (1 c.) whole almonds
3/4 c. (5 1/4 oz.) granulated sugar
1 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
3/4 tsp. ground cardamom (about 15 pods’ worth of seeds)
1/2. tsp. freshly ground nutmeg
Grated zest from 3 large or 5 small-medium oranges
Grated zest from 2 lemons
1 1/2 c. (7 1/2 oz.) unbleached flour
2 Tbls. cocoa, preferably Dutch processed
1/2 tsp. salt
6 Tbls. (3/4 stick) butter, softened
3/4 c. packed (5 1/4 oz) light brown sugar
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 3/4 c. (7 oz.) confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1/4 c. whole milk
1. Heat oven to 350°. Spread nuts on a baking sheet and toast for about 8 minutes. Let cool. If you’ll be baking these right off without chilling, leave the oven on, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
2. Place the nuts along with the granulated sugar and spices in a food processor, and process till finely ground, about 30 seconds. Add orange and lemon zest, and pulse several times till mixed in.
3. Whisk together the flour, cocoa and salt in a small bowl, and set aside. In the bowl of a mixer, beat the butter and brown sugar together a couple of minutes, till light and relatively fluffy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add eggs, one at a time, and then the vanilla, mixing till well combined. Turn the speed to low and add the flour, mixing till just barely combined. Then mix in the nut mixture. It will begin to stick to the paddle, so remove from the mixer and continue to mix by hand, making sure to reach all the way down to the bottom!
4. Cover and chill the dough for several hours or overnight if you like your cookies thick and chewy. If baking right away, portion the dough into 1 1/2 Tbls. balls and place about 1 1/2 to 2 inches apart on the lined baking sheet. Unchilled dough will spread more than chilled, so use your judgement. I like to use a 1 1/2 inch cookie scoop, greased, to portion the dough.
5. Bake the cookies until puffed and the top no longer looks wet, about 12 minutes, turning pan around halfway through. Cool about 5 minutes before removing to a wire rack. Bake the remaining cookies in the same way. Psst! Either wait for the pan to cool completely before adding more dough, or line a second pan. A hot pan will begin to melt the dough before it can set in the heat of the oven.
6. For the glaze, whisk confectioners’ sugar together with the milk until smooth. Brush a layer of glaze over each cooled cookie with a pastry brush. Allow to set completely. Enjoy!