This year, I `m already under a Christmas spell. As soon as the first of December was in sight, the kids started crafting their wish lists, begged us to buy a Christmas tree and to open the boxes filled with ornaments and decorations. Now every day for them begins with a dash of excitement as they pick a daily dose of sweets and goodies from the advent calendar. With rising anticipation they wonder what will be under the Christmas tree on the 24th, and whether it will be père Noël or the German Christkind who delivers the gifts, or perhaps both? Who knows… Either way, I love to see how at home French and German holiday traditions melt together, creating a special potpourri of future memories for our kids, to be treasured for a lifetime. The fondest Christmas memories are childhood memories after all.
My own Christmas memories smell and taste like cinnamon, marzipan and gingerbread spice, the holy trinity of German holiday baking. My mother, my aunt and I have always had a special weakness for a variety of German gingerbread called Elisenlebkuchen. It´s an exquisitely soft lemon or chocolate glazed cookie made of almonds, candied orange & lemon peel, marzipan and the inimitable Lebkuchen spice. The name, by the way, derives from Elise or Elisabeth who is the patroness of the baker´s trade. Famous all over the world, Elisenlebkuchen originate from the Bavarian city of Nuremberg, and while I lived in nearby Munich, there was a small shop, opened only around Christmastime, that was exclusively dedicated to selling these special treats. I hear it still exists.
Here in Paris, my most craved Christmas cookies are out of reach, so I baked my own version, slightly paraphrasing the classic recipe. Mine come without the paper thin wafers called “Oblaten” that traditionally form the base of the Elisenlebkuchen, but as I couldn´t find them here, I just skipped them – no one I know is particularly fond of them anyway. Instead, I decorated my “Elises” with almonds, pistachios and candied fruit, saluting to mendiants, one of my favorite French confections. That´s what happens when French and German Christmas baking collide. The humble Elisenlebkuchen look a little more festive this way, and when if not now is the time to dress up?
Elisenlebkuchen (makes about 20 small ones)
4 egg whites ( 140 g)
100 g grated marzipan
150 g ground almonds
60 g candied orange peel, finely chopped
60 g candied lemon peel, finely chopped
125 g sugar
10 g cocoa powder (unsweetened)
1 pinch salt
30 g flour
½ tsp baking powder (or the same amount of hartshorn, if you have on hand)
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1-11/2 tsp Lebkuchen spice mix (store bought or home made, see recipe below)
baking time: 15 minutes at 160°C/320 °F
Chop candied fruit into very small cubes. Grate the marzipan. In a bowl, add all dry ingredients, then the egg whites. Stir everything together using electric whisks, working at low speed.
Fill mixture into a ziplock bag, cut off the edge and pipe small circles onto a parchment paper lined baking tray.
Leave the gingerbread cookies to dry at ambient temperature for about 1.5 hours, or until the dough doesn´t feel sticky to the touch any longer.
Bake in a preheated oven for 15 minutes. Leave to cool, then glaze with lemon or chocolate glaze and decorate with almonds and/or candied fruit.
small handful of blanched almonds, and optional: unsalted pistachios and candied orange/lemon peel
As a rule of thumb, 4 tbsp lemon juice will require about 180-200 g confectioner´s sugar to make a nice and thick glaze. For the Elisenlebkuchen, the glaze should be opaque, but not too thick, so the gingerbread will shine through a little. Start by squeezing some juice into a high sided bowl, then add a few tbsp sugar, stirring until fully dissolved, alternating juice and sugar until you obtain your desired consistence.
optional: dark chocolate for glazing
Lebkuchen spice blend:
As I ran off of my gingerbread spice mix (a store bought blend by Schuhbeck, highly recommandable) somewhere between making several batches of Lebkuchen, I improvised my own blend with what I had on hand and was quite happy with it. Here is what I used :
3 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground cardamom
1 tsp ground ginger
½ tsp mace
1 star anise
4 allspice grains, optional
½ tsp vanilla seeds, optional
Ground star anise and cloves (and allspice if using) using a pestle and mortar. In a small bowl, mix all the ingredients together.