If you are not familiar with lebkuchen, they are soft German gingerbread cookies. Like other gingerbread, they have an array of flavourful spices like ground cinnamon, cloves, and ginger. However, unlike the usual gingerbread cutouts, they get a glossy coating in the form of an egg wash. My mom has been making this recipe every Christmas for as long as I can remember.
About this German Gingerbread Recipe
I look forward to all things gingerbread every holiday season. There are some regular dessert favourites that I like to add gingerbread flavour to like these gingerbread brownie bites or my gingerbread cinnamon rolls. I love gingerbread spice mix because it's unique in both flavour and ingredients with a spicy and warm quality. Star anise, cardamom, and cloves are just a few ingredients that come together beautifully in this seasonal spice mixture. I make a big batch and give it to my mom and sister each Christmas.
Each year, I look forward to my mom's homemade gingerbread cookies. This has been my mom's standard Christmas cookie recipe for as long as I can remember (and probably longer already). German lebkuchen are similar to gingerbread cookies, but they are very soft with a little more complex spice flavour.
My mom says that this lebkuchen recipe is a very old recipe from Volynia (an area around the border of Poland and Ukraine, where German settlers used to live). The handwritten original recipe for these gingerbread cookies calls for 2.5 kilos of flour and 10 cups of sugar!! Can you imagine making that big a batch of something? In older times, it was probably more efficient to prepare lebkuchen in large batches. Needless to say, my mom and I made adjustments to make only one-sixteenth of the original recipe.
How to Make German Gingerbread Cookies
The method for making what I consider to be the best gingerbread cookies is a little more involved but totally worth it! The process of making the dough is similar to how you make choux pastry for eclairs.
First, you heat the brown sugar, milk, water, and butter in a pot on the stove until the butter melts and the sugar is dissolved. Then, you stir in the flour to form the dough. After adding the flour, the dough gets heated again for a few minutes until it thickens and becomes tacky. At this point, it should pull from the sides of the pot as well. You may need quite a bit of arm muscle to stir the dough during this step.
Chilling and Finishing the Dough
Next, you have to chill the dough, which is important so that the heat won't cook the egg whites when you add them. If you don't have the fridge space free to chill the dough and live in a cold climate, you can cover the bowl and place it outside until it has cooled down. The dough should be cool but not rock hard - you still want to be able to stir/knead it.
Once the dough has cooled, you can whip the egg white in a bowl until it forms stiff peaks. This is easiest to do with a hand mixer, but feel free to do it by hand as well. It will just take a little longer. Once whipped, you gently fold it into the dough with the baking soda and your choice of liquor until the batter lightens and there are no white streaks. The original recipe didn't specify a type of liquor. However, if you want to have a neutral flavour, use vodka. Brandy or rum is great if you would like to add a little flavour to the dough. My mom has even used fruit schnapps and red wine before successfully.
Rolling and Cutting the Dough
The dough will be fairly sticky so I recommend chilling it first to make rolling it easier. To speed up the cooling process and make the dough easier to roll out, I divide the dough into four portions and place each between two sheets of parchment. Then, I use the rolling pin to flatten the dough into a thinner disc (about ¼ inch thick) before transferring it to the fridge or freezer to chill thoroughly.
To roll out the dough, I dust the work area with flour before adding the chilled dough disc. A little sprinkling of flour on top of the dough also helps to keep the rolling pin from sticking. Then I roll the lebkuchen dough out to about ⅛ inch thickness. Cutting out shapes is easiest if you dip the cookie cutter in flour first as it will prevent the dough from sticking.
I've only ever seen my mom cut out circles from this dough and add a few nut pieces in the center after placing them on baking sheets. However, the dough holds up well to any cutout shape. Since lebkuchen is a German gingerbread cookie, I like making gingerbread men shapes from it.
Baking the Lebkuchen Cookies
To bake the German gingerbread cookies, you will have to preheat the oven to 350°F. Additionally, you should ensure you have a few baking sheets ready to place your cookie cutouts on. There is no need to line the baking sheets, however, you can if you wish. A lining of silicone or paper is great to ensure easier cleanup.
The cookies only need about 15 minutes total time to bake, although the bake time will vary depending on the shape you cut out and the size of the cookies. You will know they are done when they are opaque on top and slightly golden on the bottoms.
Brushing with Egg Wash
An unusual aspect of this recipe is the egg wash after baking. When the cookies are hot from the oven, you quickly brush a thin coat of the diluted egg yolks on top. I whisk the egg yolks with a little water to loosen them up. The hot cookies instantly cook the egg layer so you don't have to worry about consuming raw egg here.
This egg wash layer gives the gingerbread men cookies a shiny finish and locks in some of the moisture to keep them soft and moist longer. It also makes any remaining flour dust disappear.
Alternative Sugar Glaze
If you prefer an alternative to the egg wash glaze, you can also make a simple sugar glaze. It will also give the Lebkuchen cookies a nice shine and makes them a bit sweeter. It also locks in some moisture into the gingerbread cookies, but not quite as well as the egg wash does.
To make the sugar glaze, stir together ¾ cup of powdered sugar with 1.5 tablespoons of water until a runny glaze forms. Add more water if needed.
Brush the sugar glaze over the hot Lebkuchen cookies with a pastry brush as soon as you take them from the oven. As the cookies cool the glaze sets firmly so the cookies can be stacked without sticking together. It forms a light crust that is partially white and partially clear. There is a tiny bit of a crunch as you bite into the sugar glazed cookies.
These Lebkuchen Cookies are the Epitome of Christmas
Eating these lebkuchen cookies is the quintessential flavor of Christmas for me. One of my earliest Christmas baking memories is of my mom making gingerbread cookies. She was putting a large stockpot (too big for the fridge) full of this traditional German lebkuchen dough out in the cool hallway to chill overnight. I must have been 4-years-old at that time. I believe I have had these lebkuchen cookies every Christmas since, with the exception of the two Christmases we spent in Asia.
A great way to store the finished cookies is in an airtight container until you are ready to enjoy them. They also hold up well in the freezer for longer storage. I hope you will enjoy this German gingerbread cookie recipe as much as my family has over the years!
Other Gingerbread Recipes You'll Love:
- Fluffy Wholewheat Gingerbread Pancakes
- Wholewheat Gingerbread Cinnamon Rolls
- Healthy Gingerbread Cookies
Lebkuchen - German Gingerbread Cookies
If you are not familiar with lebkuchen, they are basically soft German gingerbread cookies. Like other gingerbread, they have an array of flavourful spices like ground cinnamon, cloves, and ginger.
- 1 ⅔ cups brown sugar or demerara sugar
- ⅔ cup milk
- ½ cup water
- ½ cup butter
- 3 ⅓ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon gingerbread spice mix or a mix of ground cinnamon, ginger and cloves
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ¾ teaspoon baking soda
- 1 egg white
- 2 ½ tablespoons liquor like brandy, rum, or vodka
- nuts and seeds for decoration
- 2 egg yolks
- 1 tablespoon water
In a saucepan heat brown sugar, milk, water and butter on medium heat. Stir to combine until the butter is melted and the sugar dissolves. Take off heat as the mixture just starts to come to a boil.
Add flour, gingerbread spice mix and salt and stir with a wooden spoon or spatula until combined. Return saucepan to the stove. Continue heating the dough while stirring until it thickens and starts to pull away from the sides.
Set saucepan aside in a cool place (outside if you live in a cold climate) until the dough is no longer hot so it won't cook the egg white in the next step. But don't chill so long that the dough gets too stiff to stir.
In the meantime, beat the egg white until stiff. When the dough as cooled, stir/knead in the stiff egg white, baking soda and liquor.
Prepare several sheets of parchment paper. Divide the dough into 4 portions. Place each dough portion on a piece of parchment. Place another parchment paper sheet on top and roll the dough out to a disc of about ¼ inch thickness.
Place the rolled out Lebkuchen dough discs in the freezer or fridge until thoroughly chilled through.
Preheat your oven to 350° F and prepare 2 baking sheets.
Flour your work surface. Then take one chilled dough sheet at a time and, adding only as much flour as needed to keep it from sticking, roll to about ⅛-inch thickness.
Cut out desired shapes. Dip the cookie cutter in flour between cuts. Place the cookie cut outs on a baking sheet and decorate with nuts and seeds, if desired.
Bake one sheet at a time for about 15 minutes. Smaller shapes may bake faster, larger ones take longer. The cookies are done when the tops are opaque and the bottoms slightly browned.
In a small bowl whisk together the egg yolks and water. Pull the finished cookies from the oven, and immediately brush each cookie with a thin layer of the egg wash.
Transfer the cookies to a wire rack to cool completely. Store in an airtight container. Cookies also freeze well in Ziploc bags or airtight containers.
Alternative sugar glaze:
Combine ¾-1 cup powdered sugar and 1.5 tablespoons water until smooth. Use a pastry brush to spread the glaze over the Lebkuchen cookies while they are still warm