The history of lebkuchen, or gingerbread, dates back to ancient Egypt. The first iteration of these cakes called for a generous amount of honey, considered a gift from the gods in pre-Christian times. German friars in the 13th century baked similar honey cakes to accompany the strong beer served in monasteries during Lent, setting the groundwork for modern gingerbread.
Those early lebkuchen recipes included various imported spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, anise, cloves, and of course, ginger. Spices cost a lot of money in medieval Europe, so recipes that used them liberally provided a subtle means to display wealth. Lebkuchen commanded such respect in Nuremberg that it stood in for currency.
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Lebkuchenherzen, or gingerbread hearts, are a common sight at the open-air markets that operate throughout Germany during holidays such as Christmas, Oktoberfest, and Kirmes. They usually hang from ribbons with sweet sayings written in frosting at the center. You give them to friends or lovers or your family to express your feelings. When you bake them at home and decorate them, you can say exactly what you like.
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The Nürnberger lebkuchen recipe has been around since the 14th century when Nürnberg was a rich city with good trade associations. You can make traditional-style Nürnberger lebkuchen in your home without any special German ingredients. Finish these soft, spicy cookies with a liqueur or rum glaze. They keep for several weeks in an airtight container on the counter, so make a double batch to keep on hand for when guests drop in during the festive season. They also freeze well for extended storage.
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The Brothers Grimm might deserve credit for the popularity of gingerbread houses, or perhaps early gingerbread-house building efforts inspired the setting for their classic fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel. Either way, this Christmas tradition spread through Europe and then across to the New World. This recipe produces a hard cookie suitable for lebkuchenhaus construction.
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Basler läckerli ("Lek-ur-lē"), a 300-year-old cookie with a secret recipe, originated in Basel, Switzerland. Dry, crisp, and filled with nuts and orangeat, or candied orange peel, this cookie keeps well for weeks. If you cannot get a hold of real Basler läckerli from a European source, this recipe yields a similarly delicious cookie.