illuminate history

Curiosity: forget “Cherchez la femme” (Look for the woman.) “Cherchez l’histoire.” (Look for the story.)

’tis the season

It’s nearly Christmas, time to make gingerbread and lebkuchen–putting me in mind of an essay I wrote in summer, 2012, which is forthcoming in  Memories Sweet and Savory: Desserts from, Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett, Editors. It’s called Recipe for Patience.

Emma & Diana IV

Lebkuchen remind me of Grandma, my father’s mother Emma. My earliest memory of her is the two-week visit when we came back from Guam in 1948: my parents, my three-year-old sister Barbara, and me, age six. The four of us squeezed into the one-bedroom apartment in Philadelphia where she’d lived since being widowed six years before. Nearly 70 — my current age — Grandma was still tall, slim, and strong.

After my sister Cindy arrived in 1949, followed by Sheri in 1952, Grandma came to visit us instead; our family was too big to fit into the apartment. Whenever she came for Thanksgiving, Grandma made a big batch of lebkuchen, the traditional Christmas cookie she learned from her mother, who came from Germany to Michigan in 1854, age two.

Grandma mixed eggs, honey, brown sugar, molasses, spices, chopped candied lemon or orange peel or citron, sliced almonds, flour, and baking soda, and put the stiff, sticky dough in the refrigerator overnight. The next day, she rolled it, cut rectangles about three inches long, two inches wide, thicker than pie crust, and arranged them on baking sheets. Then she let me put whole, blanched almonds in the middle of each cookie. “Put them in at an angle,” she instructed, “set them deep in the dough so they don’t fall off, but not so deep that they touch the cookie sheet.”

A tantalizing, spicy aroma permeated the house as the cookies baked; but we couldn’t eat them right away — they were too hard. We learned patience from the holiday ritual of storing lebkuchen with a couple of apple slices in two large earthenware crocks. Latches on the handles snapped heavy airtight lids in place. Moisture from the apple and candied fruit mellowed the hard cookies; they were nice and chewy when it was time to put up Christmas decorations.

Grandma spent the whole summer of 1956 with us. She and I shared a room and many conversations. “Don’t be in a hurry to marry young,” she advised. “Wait until you’re at least thirty and know who you are. I married at 36, after I’d been a practical nurse and knew the kind of life I wanted.”

Grandma moved to Florida four years later, to live with her daughter Edith. Helping her move, Daddy discovered that Grandma met a dentist when she was in nursing school. They married and lived with her parents — had no children. After she divorced him because he was an alcoholic, she remained with her parents and continued working until she met our grandfather, a childless widower. They married in 1914, had three children, and shared a full, contented life until he died in 1942. Her sage advice, it turned out, was the fruit of bitter experience.

This was when Mother took over the lebkuchen and I went off to college. After I married at 22 — not following all of Grandma’s advice — Mother sent part of her annual batch to us.

group photosSeveral years and three kids later, I needed a job but was frustrated when personnel reps kept saying, “You have a great education, but not enough experience.” My husband reassured me like Grandma would have: “Be patient, something will turn up sooner or later. Remember: you can do anything you set your mind to; you just need a chance to get in the door and figure out what’s going on.”

After Mother died in 1991, my sister Cindy sent me a copy of the recipe, plus a half-page of optional variations. Then I made lebkuchen at Thanksgiving — and shipped some to my daughter Miriam and her family.

Wanting cookies we could eat in a day or two, I increased the amount of fruit and used apricots, dates, and raisins—or dried cherries, apples, or pears if I had them—instead of the highly processed candied peel or citron. Then I substituted a combination of whole wheat pastry flour and oatmeal for the all-purpose flour to increase fiber. Finally, I added coconut and began making them all year round. A German friend assures me they still taste like the lebkuchen of her childhood.


A free-lance writer — after several years as cookbook editor — Miriam was contracted to produce a cookbook for Bob’s Red Mill. Retired by then, I was part of her cross-country network of recipe testers and recipe generators for over a year. You’ll find my recipe for lebkuchen, on p. 394 of Bob’s Red Mill Cookbook: Whole & Healthy Grains for Every Meal of the Day, by Miriam Backes.


2 eggs

¾ c. firmly-packed brown sugar

1 c. honey

1. c. molasses

1 c. slivered almonds, lightly toasted

1 c. chopped dates

1 c. raisins

1. c. chopped dried apples, pears, or apricots

1 c. shredded coconut

3 c. wholewheat pastry flour

3 c. oatmeal

2 tsp. nutmeg (note: freshly ground spices are preferable.)

2 tsp. cinnamon

1 tsp. clove

1 tsp. allspice

1 tsp. baking soda

Beat eggs, add brown sugar & beat until fluffy. Mix in honey & molasses. Add nuts & fruit. Combine all dry ingredients & add gradually, with mixer on low speed until all ingredients are incorporated. Mixture will be very stiff & sticky.

Divide mixture onto two large pieces of waxed paper. Fold paper to cover loosely & press to form a rectangular shape roughly 1” thick. Freeze overnight or longer.

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350º and grease baking sheets with cooking spray. Heavily flour rolling surface and rolling pin. Working quickly, roll dough (one batch at a time, of course) to about 3/8” thick, maintaining rectangular shape as much as possible. Using a long chef’s knife, cut dough into strips about 2” across, then into bars approx. 3” long. Quickly transfer with a spatula to the prepared baking sheets & bake for approx. 15 min. Surface should be slightly browned for a crispy cookie, still soft for a more chewy one.


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This entry was posted on December 17, 2013 by in Food, Writing and tagged .
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