This year I finally took on the task of modifying the family recipe for Lebkuchen. The original recipe had been handed down from my great grandmother Tilly, to my Auntie Do, to my mother and then to me. The handwritten instructions called for ELEVEN cups of flour and nearly a pound of lard (or butter) and made enough cookies to feed Gram Tilly’s brood (and I suspect half the town of Saline, Michigan as well.)
I began by cutting the recipe in half, and then substituted ingredients here and there for health and personal preferences. I think the reboot turned out beautifully while still holding true to the winter cookie that above all others smells and tastes like home to me.
Tilly’s Lebkuchen Reboot
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup molasses (I used 1/2 cup molasses, 1/2 cup honey because my dear bees made plenty this year.)
3/4 cup coconut oil (you can use butter as in the original recipe, but I have to say the coconut oil works brilliantly!)
1 cup buttermilk (or you can “sour” your milk by adding a tablespoon of cider vinegar to reg. milk)
1/4 cup lemon juice (fresh squeezed is best)
1/2 Tablespoon vanilla
3/4 Tablespoon baking soda
1/2 Tablespoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ginger
1 cup mixed candied fruits (citron, lemon, orange)
1/2 to 2/3 cup chopped pecans (the original recipe calls for English or Black Walnuts, but I like the mellowness of pecans)
5 cups flour (I used 1.5 cups of spelt flour and reg. organic flour for the rest)
(You can also add raisins if you like, but no one in my house likes them in cookies.)
Mix together brown sugar, molasses and coconut oil. Add buttermilk, lemon juice and vanilla. Sift together spices and dry ingredients, and set aside. Lightly coat candied fruit and nuts in flour and add to the mix. Gradually add flour mixture until all ingredients are well blended.
At this point, you’ll have a sticky dough that’s a bit difficult to handle. Divide the dough in half, then shape the halves into patties on wax paper. Wrap the patties up and place in the fridge to set for 20 minutes or so. (This gives the ingredients time to bind together and will make the dough much easier to roll.)
Flour your work surface and roll out the dough to 1/2 inch thickness. Cut into shapes with a knife, biscuit cutter or cookie cutters. These are thick, chewy cookies so basic shapes work best. Traditional shapes include rectangles, circles and hearts. (I use a canning jar ring to make my rounds.)
Place a pecan or walnut half in the centre before baking on an ungreased baking sheet.
325 degrees F for 10-12 minutes.
While still warm, brush on the following glaze:
1 cup confectioner’s sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
add water by tablespoons and mix until thick, yet runny.
A few years ago I wrote a Christmas post for Jennifer Hart’s blog, “Book Club Girl.” She’d asked me to share some memories of the season with her readers and I’d gladly said yes. At the time, the days were edging towards the second Christmas after my mother’s passing, so my mother (and her cookies) were on my mind. I’d skipped baking cookies the year before because it had felt too difficult a task, but I was determined to mark year two by getting back in the kitchen and embracing the traditions of my youth. I’ve decided to include that post with the recipe – for all those who seek to make peace with Christmas ghosts.
This is my second Christmas without my mother.
She died suddenly on a January morning after one last holiday season with family. It was a shock. It was too soon. I wasn’t ready. When I went home for her funeral, I stood in the kitchen of my childhood and cried like I’ve never cried before. It was a stop all the clocks moment, where the familiar contents of that room – the shining chrome stovetop, the set of songbird coffee mugs, the scalloped copper hood on the exhaust fan circa 1973, the battered counter-top caddy bursting with wooden spoons, wire whisks and rubber spatulas – all seemed to say that it couldn’t be true, that any moment now my mother was going to walk through the door, put her hands on her hips and teasingly say, “Snap out of it. There’s work to be done.”
In the sadness of the days that followed, reminders of her came to me like messengers from the past – some easy and kind, others unexpected, yet still comforting. While searching for a mixing bowl in my parents’ pantry, I discovered a tin half full of cookies that she’d tucked away (as she’d always done in Christmases past) so she and Dad could have a sweet or two with their morning coffee after the kids and grandchildren had cleared out after New Years. Fumbling through a cupboard for a bottle of Tylenol, my fingers found the butter spotted envelope where Mom kept her collection of Christmas recipes.
She was the Queen of Christmas. She adored the sparkle and hopefulness of the season, sewing sweet dresses for her girls from velvet and lace, trimming the tree from top to bottom, carrying armfuls of poinsettias into the house.
I opened the envelope and shuffled through the pile of index cards. Seeing her handwriting reduced me to tears yet again. Aunt Cleo’s Lemon Squares (with a note: “these don’t store well, so make them last.”) Butter Cookies for my grandmother’s old metal cookie press – “don’t let go too brown.” And the long, involved instructions for making Lebkuchen, a recipe that had been passed down from her beloved grandmother. Attached to the recipe for the Lebkuchen was a list of eleven tips, (equal to the number of cups of flour required to make the cookies.) Tip number five warned, “Don’t make this on a day that you just cleaned the kitchen.”
Grandma Tilly’s Lebkuchen had helped me battle the terrible bouts of morning sickness that had accompanied both my pregnancies. The second time around, I hadn’t even told Mom I was expecting when she showed up at my house on a hot July day with a tin of the magical cookies. “I thought you might be needing these,” she’d said with a knowing smile.
This year I bought all the ingredients to make Tilly’s Lebkuken, (a task I’ve never tackled without Mom by my side.) I brought everything home from the store- the molasses, the raisins, the sugar, the flour, the lemon peel – and put it away in the cupboard. Then I stood there thinking, “What are you doing? You’re no Queen of Christmas.”
It was true. I could never hope to make Christmas like my mother did. Despite her love of all things Yuletide, I’d always preferred the shadows of the season. I’d adored the ghosts in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I’d relished the part in the nativity story where the angel made the shepherds sore afraid. Even my favourite Christmas carol, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” is in a minor key.
Mom knew this about me and never seemed to mind. She went on her merry way and simply said “to each her own.” I realize now, it was her joy in embracing the season that allowed me to revel in the dark.
As I look around my kitchen this morning, I see it’s in no danger of having just been cleaned. It’s as good a day as any to give the Lebkuchen a try. Somehow Mom’s voice is pushing into my head, working to replace my doubts. “Snap out of it and roll up your sleeves. Bake the cookies or don’t – just make Christmas your own.”