Saturday, December 4, 2010

Compound cookies

Want to make Lebkuchen (a traditional German Christmas cookie*)? You need look no further for a recipe than in the classic Bayerisches Kochbuch (Bavarian Cookbook).

We have two copies: to the right, the 18th edition, published in 1938 in Fraktur (the same font as the cover text). The font, coupled with hindsight, makes the pre-war national pride in the introduction rather chilling: to paraphrase, "at the frontline stands the German Woman from the countryside and from the town, securing the national diet and health of the Volk."

Our other copy is the 54th edition, published in 1992 in assorted Courier-ish fonts. National pride has been replaced with more practical advice on the nutritive content and chemical behavior of common ingredients.

You might observe the stylish celebration of white-colored foods on the cover of the 1992 edition: white pork roast, white Knoedel (dumplings), white sauer Kraut (cabbage), and off-white beer foam. It's permissible to spruce up white food with the occasional ornamental vegetable, but unless you want people to eat the decorations, keep the color to a minimum with only a few parsley leaves and a single tomato wedge. Radishes, by the way, are especially useful, because they're white on the inside, so they match the rest of the food after you bite past the ornamental red skin.

But back to Lebkuchen.

When you look up a recipe in the index, you must draw on all your knowledge of the precise German language. Under Lebkuchen, you will find a mere three recipes: Lebkuchen --feine (fine), --mit Kunsthonig (with artificial syrup), and --Weisse (white). Looking for hazelnut Lebkuchen? Well, that's a compound noun, so you have to look under H for Haselnusslebkuchen. Look under E for Elisenlebkuchen, under G for Gewuertzlebkuchen, and under S for Schokoladenlebkuchen. What the heck, scan the whole index lest you miss some other variety.

I made Elisenlebkuchen I. Art (Elisenlebkuchen, version I). They're pretty tasty and would be even better if they could age in a closed container with some dried apples for a month or two. I messed up some of the measurements, so the Lebkuchen dough ran off the Bakoblaten (communion wafer-like rice-flour disks that keep the dough from cementing itself to the baking sheet). Fortunately, I had a silicone baking sheet, so I didn't need to chisel anything off the pan.

For more information on German baking, see this previous discussion on my Wadlstrumpf blog. Here, I'll simply point out the irony of recipes that tell you to weigh out ingredients in grams (a system supposedly more precise than American cup measures) and then to "bake slowly at, oh, I dunno, 150-160oC, until done."

The Elisenlebkuchen I. Art recipe follows the footnote.

*At dinner last night, as I was talking about the cookies still in the oven, E kept asking excitedly, "what cookies? What cookies are you talking about?" And I kept saying, "what cookies do you think I'm talking about? Think." And E would say again, "you made cookies? What kind of cookies did you make?"--even though he was with me when I was making the Lebkuchen. "Dude: think!" I said. S kindly intervened and explained to E, "Mama calls Lebkuchen 'cookies.'" "Ohh!," said my son with sudden wise understanding. That just goes to show how much better E has internalized German than I have. The -kuchen part of Lebkuchen literally means cake, although no American would ever conceive of Lebkuchen that way. Once again, the perennial issue of cultural concepts for assorted foods rears its head: just as Germans have no mental file cabinet for concepts like pie, Americans have no data storage space that allows a Lebkuchen to be anything but a cookie.

To confirm this claim, I nonchalantly said to S, as he walked by just now, "so would you call Lebkuchen 'cookies'?" and he frowned and said unequivocally, "no. Cookies are Plaetzchen; Lebkuchen are Lebkuchen." There ya go.

Elisenlebkuchen, version I

Beat together until thick and foamy:

5 eggs
500 g sugar


2 tsp ground cinnamon
3/4 tsp ground cloves
1 knife tip ground cardamom
1 knife tip ground mace (I didn't use any)
Peel from 2 lemons, juice from 1/2 lemon

Whap up in food processor:

100 g candied lemon peel (I used a 113 g container)
100 g candied orange peel (ditto)

Add to batter. Shell and then whap up in food processor:

500 (650) unshelled almonds or half almonds, half nuts. (Seriously? Like I'm going to count and shell 500-650 almonds? The authors provided no explanation of the parenthetical 650. I assumed they meant 500 g--not enough, which is probably why the dough spread off the Oblaten--and used 454 g toasted almonds and guesstimated an additional 150 g toasted hazelnuts.)

Add nuts to batter. Spoon onto Oblaten (you can skip this if you have a silicone baking sheet. Trust me, butter alone on a baking sheet will not do the job. The dough is like cement.) In theory, let sit for a hour. (I skipped that.) Bake slowly at, oh, I dunno, 150-160oC, until done. (How about we say 325oF for 20-30 minutes.)

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