Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Lebkuchens: The Taste and Smell of Christmas

One bite always took me back to my childhood. For me, nothing quite tastes and smells like Christmas as my mother's lebkuchens do.* Since before I was born, she made these every year, and nothing stands out in my memory of my childhood Christmas like lebkuchens (with the possible exception of attending midnight mass). Perhaps because I don't otherwise have any fabulous warm memories or any of the ornaments we had, lebkuchens are the one remaining string that I have to my Christmas childhood.

What are they? Well, the bars that my mom made have little resemblance to the traditional German cookies, but the base is the same: flour, spices and honey. To that - which is where her recipe diverged - is added candied fruit, dates, currants, pecans and a few maraschino cherries. Then, as the bars cool, an icing made from powdered sugar and blackberry brandy is drizzled over the bars.

Actually, the recipe was not originally my mother's. She acquired it from my Aunt Maryanne Essenpreiss Broom. She grew up in Champaign, Illinois (home of the University of Illinois) in a house that was right next door to my uncle's (and my dad's, and later my) fraternity house, Phi Sigma Kappa. The lebkuchen recipe was given to her by Ray Eliot, who was the head football coach at the University of Illinois from 1942 to 1959, leading the Fighting Illini to Rose Bowl victories in 1947 and 1952.

My uncle Ernie (my dad's next oldest brother) is pictured to the left with Aunt Maryanne in front of the Essenpreiss home about 1948.

I hadn't made lebkuchens in a number of years, but decided that, this year, I was going to attempt to make them. I say "attempt" because the recipe is fairly complicated - at least for me. I never know if I'm going to get everything mixed right, get the ingredients chopped enough, make the dough thick enough, etc.

Mixing the candied fruit, nuts and other ingredients into the dough is always a challenge

The mixed dough is covered and put into the fridge for three days to "mature"

The baked lebkuchens, ready to be cut in the pan then placed on drying racks where I drizzle them with the icing.

Getting the right mixture of blackberry brandy and icing sugar is a bit of a challenge, too.

Like other northern European Christmas cookies, these lebkuchens have to sit in tins in a cool place for at least a week before they're ready to eat. The dough softens and the brandy and candied fruit more or less "ferment" the cookies. One never really knows until this period passes whether one has achieved success with the cookies. That is the stage mine are currently in. If they turn out well, I'll probably write about it. If not, well, I probably won't write about it.

Of course, my mother's cookies were always perfect. And they kept for months. I can recall going to visit her brother once around Easter time. Aunt Beulah brought out the tin of lebkuchens my mother had sent her the previous Christmas. (Maybe they didn't like them?)

Anyway, even if the cookies don't turn out perfect (my skills in the kitchen being extremely rudimentary), just tasting the dough as it matured and smelling them as they baked was enough to bring that childhood Christmas place back into remembrance.

Extended Broom Family, Christmas 1957, which was also my older sister Karen's third birthday. (I hadn't arrived yet; I would be born the following September.) My mother is at right, holding my brother Danny. (She looks different in this picture from any other picture I have seen of her.) Standing are L-R my uncle Dale Broom, my grandmother Broom, my uncle Walt Broom, my aunt Maryanne, my aunt Elizabeth Broom and my aunt Shirley (Walt's wife) holding my cousin Gerald (Maryanne's son). Other cousins are pictured to the left and right: David, Veronica and James.

Throughout most of my life, I thought this lebkuchen recipe was a well-guarded secret family recipe. It was only upon talking to my aunt about it 15 years ago that I learned that it was not this, but another, recipe that was the true Essenpreiss secret family recipe. So, for what I am sure is the very first time, I am publishing the lebkuchen recipe to the world. If anyone out there ever tries to make these, I would appreciate hearing from you. (This is the full recipe. I always halve it.)

Eliot-Essenpreiss-Broom Lebkuchen


1-1/3 cups honey (liquefied – 1 lb.)
2 cups sugar
2/3 cups         butter
2 eggs beaten
2/3 cup water and maraschino cherry liquid
8 cups flour
2 tsps baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp cloves
3 lbs candied fruit (pineapples and cherries)
1 lb         chopped pecans
1 lb         currants
18        maraschino cherries
1 lb        dates (halved lengthways)


1 cup powdered sugar, sifted
Blackberry brandy


Slowly boil sugar and honey and shortening for five minutes, then let cool slightly.  Beat eggs and add water mixture to eggs, then stir into honey mixture.  Sift flour, soda, salt and spices, then stir into honey mixture.  Stir in fruit, currants and nuts.  Put dough into greased and floured bowl, cover and let ripen in refrigerator for three days.

Take dough out of fridge and let sit in order to bring to room temperature (in order to be able to work with the dough).  Grease cookie sheets, then drop dough by spoonful onto sheets, then flatten and spread dough over entire surface of cookie sheet, using either hands or spoon. Dough should be approx. ¼ inch thick on cookie sheet.

Bake at 375°F for 25 minutes. While baking, prepare icing by mixing sifted icing sugar and brandy until consistency of liquefied honey.

Test cookies after 20 minutes with a toothpick.  Take out of oven, cut into squares (approx. 1 ½” or 2” square) while still on cookie sheet.  Take out of cookie sheet and place on cooling racks. Using spoon or fork, drizzle icing over cookies. Let cool on cooling racks, then transfer to tins, putting waxed paper between each layer of cookies. These will keep for weeks in a cool place.

* I use the plural because that's how we referred to them, even though the noun is collective, I believe, in German.


  1. these look DElisc...I'm going to 'attempt' to make these as well!

  2. I'll be anxious to hear how it went! Looking forward to our next visit! :)