Pretty much until now, I thought “lebkuchen” meant “love cake” – but then again, my most hilarious/embarrassing German-language gaffes have often come from confusing “liebe,” the word for love, with “leben,” the word for life (don’t ask!). So, maybe “lebkuchen” means “life cake;” the etymology is interesting, but uncertain. What is undeniable is that this German cousin of gingerbread is delicious.
Like I mentioned, my first attempt at this recipe tanked (but don’t worry, I learned the hard way so that you don’t have to!). Turns out that the trick (art?) of dissolving sugar in honey requires a wee bit more instruction than our family recipe offers: “Heat 3/4 cup honey and 2 cups sugar until sugar is completely dissolved in the honey.”
My reaction went something like this: “Really? Two cups of sugar are actually going to dissolve in 3/4 of a cup of honey? Can that be right? That seems like a lot! Do I heat it in the microwave? On the stove? At what temp? For how long? Two cups of sugar, really?!?”
In spite of several calls to my mom, for whom making this recipe is second nature, it was just impossible to understand by phone how the honey/sugar mixture should look and feel when it was ready. We even tried using Facetime to see if my mom could tell me whether it looked right, to no avail. I ended up with a thick goo more appropriate for peanut brittle than bread batter — you can see it in the photo below; is what your mixture should not look like! That’s when I gave up, resigned to waiting for my mom’s imminent visit to figure this one out.
So, here’s the trick to getting that honey-sugar mix right: You need to melt the sugar in the honey on the stovetop in a saucepan over medium heat, one cup at a time (indeed, 2 cups total!), stirring slowly and consistently until you get a smooth mixture that returns to the consistency and color of honey and the sugar granules are not obvious to the sight (but upon tasting, you’ll know by a slight crunch that they aren’t completely dissolved). The mixture should easily run off a wooden spoon.
The next trick, less complicated, is making sure you don’t pour the honey/sugar mixture into the eggs while it’s still hot, lest you accidentally cook the eggs. Instead, let the pot-o-sweetness cool until it’s warm (giving it an occasional stir to maintain consistency) while you’re giving the eggs a good beating, and then slowly add the honey/sugar mixture to the eggs. Then you’ll mix in the spices, flour and milk.
The last trick is spreading the batter evenly into the pan. This is a thick batter and needs some work to make sure that it’s equally distributed out to the corners and edges of the cookie sheet. Once it’s evenly spread, take a sharp knife and run it through the dough, side-to-side and top-to-bottom to release any air bubbles that may be hiding in the batter. It’s not a big deal if you don’t catch them, but I skipped this last-minute instruction from my mom and ended up with several larger air pockets in my finished product (don’t look too closely at the photos!).
Finally, smooth the top of the batter – it will be pretty thick! Any shapes, creases and spatula lines that are visible when you put it in the oven will still be there when you pull it out. Purely cosmetic, and the icing will hide some of it anyway, but just FYI in case you care about this kind of stuff.
Recipe courtesy of Katie Strunk
For the batter:
2 cups sugar
3/4 cup honey (I like the darker mountain forest amber honey, but wildflower or other kinds will also work well)
2 teaspoons allspice
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
2 teaspoons cinnamon
2 teaspoons baking soda
5 to 6 cups flour
1 cup milk
For the glaze/icing:
1/2 to 1 cup powdered sugar
Enough water or milk to create glue-like consistency
Put honey and 1 cup of sugar in medium saucepan over medium heat and begin stirring until sugar granules appear melted into the honey. Slowly stir in second cup of sugar until you have a smooth mixture that returns to the consistency and color of honey (until the sugar granules are not obvious and a medium-beige mixture runs easily off a wooden spoon). Remove from heat and let cool, stirring occasionally to maintain consistency.
While honey mixture is cooling, beat eggs in a mixer until lemon-colored. When eggs are light yellow and honey mixture is relatively cool (warm’s OK, just not hot to the touch), very slowly add honey mixture and continue beating. Occasionally stop the mixer and scrape edges and bottom of the mixing bowl to make sure honey mixture is fully incorporated.
Preheat oven to 325 and grease a large, rimmed baking sheet.
Add spices and baking soda to egg/honey/sugar mix (will look mostly yellow with speckles). Mix well. Add flour gradually, starting with about 3 cups, then alternate flour with milk until mixture is well-blended and thick enough to be spread into a cookie sheet. The batter will be slightly thicker than brownie batter and a little taffy-like.
Pour into greased cookie sheet and smooth out to the edges and corners until batter is even. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes, until golden brown and a toothpick comes out of center mostly clean (don’t over-bake, there’s a fine line between done and dry). Let cool slightly.
Make glaze: Add water or milk to powdered sugar slowly until you have a glue-like consistency. Add a few drops of lemon or vanilla extract if desired. Drizzle over the kuchen and spread evenly with spatula. Cool completely and cut into squares. Store in cookie tins. Freezes well.