Lebkuchen are a kind of soft German gingerbread cookies. My mom has been making this recipe every Christmas for as long as I can remember.
I look forward to all things gingerbread every Christmas season. There are some regular dessert favorites that I like to ‘gingerbreadify’ like these gingerbread brownie bites or my gingerbread cinnamon rolls.
Most of all though, 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 flavor.
My mom says it is a very old recipe from Volynia (an area around the border of today’s Poland and Ukraine, where German settlers used to live). That handwritten original recipe for gingerbread cookies calls for 2.5 kilos of flour and 10 cups of sugar!!
Needless to say I (and my mom also already) made adjustments to the recipe. I ended up using about 1/6th of the original.
The method for making what I consider to be the best gingerbread cookies is a little more involved, but totally worth it! This gingerbread cookie recipe is similar to the process of making choux pastry for eclairs.
How to make Gingerbread Cookies
First, the liquid ingredients are heated, until the butter melts and then the flour is stirred in. After adding the flour the dough gets heated again for a few minutes until it thickens and becomes tacky.
Quite a bit of arm muscle is needed for stirring in this step.
Now the dough has to chill, so that it won’t cook the stiff egg white when it’s added. If you are living in a cold climate like us and/or don’t have the fridge space, just put it outside! The dough should be cool but not rock hard – you still want to be able to stir/knead it.
Together with the egg white, add baking soda and liquor. The original recipe didn’t specify any specific kind. If you want to stay flavor neutral, use vodka. Brandy or rum will add a little flavor to the dough. My mom reports of having used fruit schnapps and even red wine – all with success.
The dough will be fairly sticky. I roll out a quarter of the batch at a time on a floured surface and also add flour on top to keep the rolling pin from sticking.
I’ve only ever seen my mom cut out circles from this dough and add a few nut pieces in the center. But since these are gingerbread cookies of some sort, I had to cut out gingerbread man cookies as well.
And stars and trees because I didn’t end up making any other cut-out cookies this Christmas. Pecans, almond slices and pumpkin seeds were my decorations.
Another unusual aspect of this recipe is the egg wash after baking. When the cookies are hot straight from the oven, you quickly brush a thin coat if the diluted egg yolks on.
This gives the gingerbread men cookies a shiny finish and I believe, it keeps them soft and moist longer. It also makes any remaining flour dust disappear.
Eating these Lebkuchen cookies is the quintessential flavor of Christmas for me. One of my first Christmas baking memories is of my mom making gingerbread cookies. She was putting a large soup pot (too big for the fridge) full of this Lebkuchen dough out in the cool hallway to chill overnight.
I must have been 4 maybe. And I believe I have had these Lebkuchen every Christmas since, except for the 2 Christmases we spend in Asia.
I hope you will enjoy this best gingerbread cookie recipe as much as my family has for so many years already!
Lebkuchen - German Gingerbread Cookies
- 1 2/3 cups brown or demerara sugar
- 2/3 cup milk
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/2 cup butter
- 3 1/3 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon gingerbread spice mix or a mix of ground cinnamon, ginger and cloves
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 egg white
- 2 1/2 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 until the butter is melted and mixture just starts to come to a boil.
Take off heat and dd 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 chilled but not too hard, so it won't cook the egg white.
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 3-4 portions. Place each on a piece of parchment and shape into a log. Place another parchment paper sheet on top and roll the dough out with a rolling pin (thickness doesn't matter too much at this point, but about 1/4 inch works well).
Place the rolled out Lebkuchen dough in the freezer or fridge until thoroughly chilled through.
Preheat 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 to the work surface and rolling pin, roll to about 1/8-inch thickness.
Cut out desired shapes, place on a baking sheet and decorate with nuts and seeds, if desired. Bake one sheet at a time for 15 minutes.
In a small bowl combine the egg yolks and water. Take the finished cookies from the oven, and immediately brush with a thin layer of the egg wash.
Transfer cookies to a wire rack to cool.
Store in an airtight container. Cookies also freeze well in Ziploc bags or airtight containers.