Everyone knows that Christmas time is a time when many people make gingerbread houses. This has been a tradition in my family too, but with a twist. Being German, my grandma always made a lebkuchen house rather than a gingerbread house. Lebkuchen is a German cookie, very similar to gingerbread in that it is comprised of many of the same spices: ginger, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, etc. However, while gingerbread uses strictly molasses as a binder, lebkuchen uses honey. After it is baked it can become rock hard (seriously, you can break a tooth!) unless stored with a slice of apple to keep it moist. That's why it's perfect for making houses for decorating!
*Note: There can be differences in recipes for actual lebkuchen cookies as opposed to the recipe used to make a lebkuchen house so be aware of that if you choose to look for a different recipe on the internet.
So first, I'll start with my grandma's lebkuchen (house) recipe.
IMPORTANT!! You must make the dough for lebkuchen the day before you are ready to bake because it will need time to rest overnight. (I always forget this part and get annoyed when I go to make it again.)
5 c sugar
2 c honey
3/4 c butter
1 c lemon juice (~4-5 small lemons)
3 egg yolks
5 lbs flour
1 c baking powder
1 Tbs each of ginger, cinnamon, cloves
1 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp salt
Royal Icing: (as per the Joy of Cooking cook book):
3 1/2 c powdered (10x) sugar, sifted
the juice of one whole lemon
2 egg whites *
*If you use the third egg white from the lebkuchen recipe, add an extra 1 3/4 cups of sugar for the right consistency.
Beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks, but not too dry. Add lemon juice and sugar a little at a time. You can add a drop of blue food coloring to keep icing from turning a bit gray. While piping, keep the excess in the bowl covered with a wet paper towel to prevent it from drying out. Store any extra in an air-tight container for up to 5 days.
For the dough, in a large saucepan combine sugar, honey and butter. Cook and stir over medium heat until the butter melts. Remove from heat. Add lemon juice, eggs and egg yolks.
*NOTE: The pot I used in the picture was not a big enough saucepan to finish the recipe so I had to transfer it later into a large bowl, as you can see in the next step. If you have a much larger pot - at least 6 or 7 quart minimum - use that instead.
Stir in flour, baking powder, salt and spices. Stir until dough is mixed but still lumpy. *NOTE: Add flour in a little at a time, not just to make it easier to stir, but to make sure the dough doesn't get too dry. It should still be a little sticky to the touch and not crumbly. I added a little too much flour to mine and as you can see, it was a little crumbly at the end. If this happens to you, add just a little water to bring the dough back together.
On a floured surface knead with hands into a smooth ball. (I divided mine into two to make it easier to handle.) Cover.
Let rest overnight.
The next day, grease several cookie sheets (or use parchment paper), roll and cut dough into desired shapes and bake at 350 degrees F for about 15-20 minutes until golden brown. *the thinner you make your dough the less time it will take to bake so keep a close eye on it! They should be a light golden brown when done.
*NOTE: If you are cutting out windows, it's easier to cut the holes, leave the shapes in while baking, then remove pieces immediately after taking them out of the oven. That way you'll get a clean cut rather than a puffy opening after it's baked. P.S. If you're really handy you can make yourself tin cookie cutter shapes like my Opa did back when my Oma made these houses. They're very handy and they've lasted a loooooooong time.
After the pieces were all cut and baked it was time for the fun part - assembling and decorating! I highly recommend having someone to help you with the assembly of the pieces, no matter how simple the design, as it may take a few minutes for the royal icing to set. If you want to get really fancy, you can crush up some Jolly Rancher candies, sprinkle them in the holes of the windows and melt them in the oven for 2-3 minutes to make a stained glass effect. Do this before you assemble your house and be sure to put parchment paper underneath or the candy will stick to your baking sheet!
When it's all dry, load up on candy and go to town decking it out! I always add my grandmother's Hansel and Gretel figures to the finished product, along with the Hexe (or witch) and her cat. For an added touch, I cut out a hole in the back of the house and stuck in a small light bulb (the kind used in electric Christmas candles) so that the stained glass windows lit up. The results are pretty cool! My cousin and I also had fun replicating Snoopy's decorated doghouse from A Charlie Brown Christmas. So think outside the box and happy baking!