Another Love Thursday, another recipe. What could be more appropriate for this particular Love Thursday than yet another cookie recipe?
This is a traditional German cookie, but this is not exactly a traditional recipe. Though I first tasted it in my loving mother's pink kitchen, this is not her recipe, either. Unlike the several traditional and/or gourmet recipes in the three bazillion cookbooks adorning the top shelf of my pantry, this recipe does not scald the honey, does not require you to "cure" the dough for three days (though you can if you want to), and, weirdest of all, does not contain candied fruit.
Are you a freak like me who enjoys a good fruitcake now and then?* Are you instead among the majority of people I encounter who despise fruitcake? Well, if the former, I doubt very much that the alleged "fruit" used in the common fruitcake is why you like it, and if the latter, I am sure that the reason you hate the common fruitcake is that very same alleged "fruit." Most fruitcake bakers use candied fruit, and most people buy it pre-candied and "enhanced" by artificial flavors and colors. That stuff is nasty, nasty, nasty, nastier than the moldy dried apricots I returned to Trader Joe's** today, nastier than a five-week-old Big Mac that doesn't mold at all, nastier than the nastiest liquid medicine your parents ever forced down your throat. There is nothing about that stuff that is candy or fruit. It's just sugar and chemicals. Blech.
Fruit you candy yourself is a different story, of course, but honestly? I really don't see the point most of the time. Fruit is so good. Good fruit is like a special love present from the sun and the earth and the bees to you. It's pleasure and nutrition. You can't improve it. You can preserve it. You can combine it with other wonderful things to make still more wonderful things. You can't make it better, though, not usually, not if it's good to begin with. So why sugar it up? Do you also gild lilies?
I'm not saying never candy fruit. I'm just saying don't candy reflexively, just because that's the way it's always been done for whatever you're making. Just because it's the way it's always been done doesn't mean it's the best way it can ever be done. And if you and yours like it that way just fine, well ignore me, of course.
I've had a lot of candied fruit in my life. It didn't stop at fruitcake or lebkuchen. Through high school, after punting the whole modeling career idea, I worked in a chocolate store owned first by a local woman and then by a Yugoslavian couple who taught me some of their candy-making secrets and also let me eat whatever I wanted that we sold. It's a common practice in candy stores to let the employees eat whatever they want, however much they want. The idea is that they will get sick of it and stop.
I never got sick of it. If I maxed out on one thing I'd simply move on to another. I gained many, many pounds and an embarrassing number of fillings in a very short time.
I tried glazed Australian apricots enrobed in chocolate. I liked the idea, but the sweetness of the glaze took away whatever tartness was left in that already particularly mild variety of apricot, rendering the fruits almost flavorless but for the taste of added sugar. I tried something called a Geraldine, which was much better, minced dried apricots -- a naturally tart variety, not candied -- swirled with runny caramel and enrobed in nice, hard, dark chocolate that would crack when you bit it, bursting the liquidy inside into your mouth and dribbling a little of that caramel onto your lip and chin.
(Hm. I have the funniest feeling that I've written of these before. Oh, well. You can tell they made a big impression. It's been at least 25 years since I tasted one and I'm still going on about them.)
The only candied fruit I've ever really enjoyed is candied citrus peel enrobed in that same kind of thick but crisp dark chocolate. The citrus peel is so bitter and tough, and sugaring it softens it for biting, but I'm not sure it makes the flavor better. Arguably marmalade is far more delicious than straight citrus peel, though that might be a situational thing. You wouldn't plop a piece of unadulterated orange peel onto a slab of buttered raisin toast and expect a delicacy. (Well, maybe you would, but I surely wouldn't.) On the other hand, there are some marmalades so good I eat them with a spoon straight out of the jar, covertly. Sometime I'll have to try dipping clean but otherwise unprepared orange peel in chocolate and eating it. I'll bet it's delicious. The biggest problem would be that the resulting treat (assuming it is a treat) wouldn't keep very well, a concern for professional confectioner and frugal home cook alike.
Candying fruit, you see, is an ancient way of extending fruit's shelf life. Like other methods of cooking fruit with sugar, it's also a way of salvaging fruit that actually isn't so yummy on its own, picked or fallen from the tree too green, for example, or too bruised and battered to present as is, or maybe just not grown in the best year ever for that kind of fruit. There are also many techniques for cooking fruit with sugar which offer a way to use certain difficult fruits, like quince, that really aren't nice at all unprepared. This is why someone who came before us invented these processes, and why a lot of old-fashioned sweets include sugared or candied fruit. It was originally all about limiting waste. And sometimes things still taste best with fruit prepared using one of these methods, sometimes even just jam.
The thing is, though, that nowadays you can get very, very nice dried fruit, much of it organic, from a number of sources without spending a fortune or even a lot of effort. You can even dry your own a little bit at a time in one of those countertop units. So unless you like the taste of candied fruit, which most modern people really don't seem to, why use it?
Those hundred dead Jewish women in my head are freaking out right now. I'm about to propose that you make lebkuchen -- lebkuchen, for goodness' sake! -- without any candied fruit at all, not even candied citrus peel. Yes I am. You know what? I've been doing it this way for years. And you know what else? Nobody ever turns down my lebkuchen -- except people who don't like gingerbready kinds of cookies. Some people just don't like that flavor. But then, as we've discussed, some people don't like chocolate, either. You can't please everybody. And besides, as I'm trying to explain to the ancestresses, because I live now, and here, I don't have to use candied fruit. So why should I?
"But then they won't be lebkuchen!" the ancestresses cry.
But they are, I insist. They are gingerbready cookies made with fruit and love. That's what lebkuchen are. They have to be gingerbready. They have to have fruit. They have to have love. End of story, already!
All these changes are fine and dandy, you may be thinking, but do these cookies keep as well as traditional lebkuchen? Traditional lebkuchen are the kind of cookie a German woman would bake in large batches, to store and have on hand.
Truthfully, I don't know whether these store as well. It has never come up. I've never had a batch last longer than five days. I can't say that about the ones with the candied fruit. Sometimes those would hang around my mom's kitchen for weeks. Of course, I usually bake these to give away, while my mom usually baked them just for her family. Still, I've seen an entire plateful evaporate in under an hour in a social setting, and lots of people had more than one.
One thing I can tell you is that a little bit of time, if you can give it to them, does improve both kinds. Just like my mother's lebkuchen, the last one in a batch of these will always be more delicious than the first.
Lebkuchen à la Sara
½ C honey
½ C molasses
½ C brown sugar
1 jumbo egg
1 lemon (optional, but recommended)
2¾-4 C flour
½ C softened butter
1 t ginger
1 t soda
1 t cinnamon
1 t ground cloves
1 t allspice
1 t nutmeg
1 C chopped, unsulfured, preservative-free, dried fruits (morsels should be raisin-size or smaller, but not minced; also, preservatives of any kind will change the flavor of your end product , lessening its goodness unnecessarily)
1. Mix together honey, molasses, butter, sugar, egg, whole grated rind of lemon and just a little juice for flavor (if you decide to use lemon at all, which I do), and beat well.
2. In a separate bowl, with just 2¾ C of the flour, whisk together dry ingredients (including all spices) until evenly blended. Mix these ingredients a little at a time into the wet until just blended. If the dough is gooey and sticky, add in flour until it's not, until it's a pleasant cookie dough texture, not too dry, but not unworkably wet. If you will be rolling your cookies using a floured board and rolling pin, you can leave the dough on the slightly moister side; if you will be rolling your cookies between sheets of parchment or wax paper, as I do***, you'll want your dough a tad drier. Once you've got the consistency you want, mix in the dried fruit until evenly distributed throughout.
3. Chill dough for at least an hour. You can even make this dough a few days ahead and chill it until it's time to use it, and this will improve the end result though it's not required. Just seal the bowl up nice and tight so that the fridge flavors don't get at it.
4. When you're ready to roll and cut, preheat oven to 350°F.
5. Roll out the dough to 1/8" thickness and cut into shapes that please you. Intricate shapes (like a menorah, for example, or a reindeer) won't work well because chunks of dried fruit will have to be cut, too, wherever they occur at the edges of each shape, and as you will discover, they aren't as yielding to a cookie cutter as dough.**** Stick with simple roundish shapes, hearts, flowers with shallowly shaped petals, suns, stars, etc., and you'll be happier with the process and with what you get.
WARNING: This recipe makes some of the most delicious cookie dough ever. Spicy, buttery, and rich with whatever fruits you put into it, it just gets more delicious sitting in the fridge overnight or for a few days. Therefore, you should attempt to roll these out only after you have eaten a substantial meal. Otherwise, you may not end up with very many cookies.
6. Bake for 12 minutes. While you are baking, the aroma may drive you crazy. Do not burn your nose on the oven door while trying to inhale more deeply.
7. If you like (and I do, personally), dredge while warm in powdered sugar.
Now, as I said, these cookies really are better three days after you bake them, so if you can wait, do. Store them in a container with an orange or a lemon in it until you are ready to share them. If you can't wait, they will still be delicious.
Share them with people who bring warmth to your winters.
Happy Love Thursday, everyone!
First, forgive me, I must rant just a tiny bit.
Pre-cut "holiday shapes" cookie dough is the most depressing holiday product I have ever seen in my entire life:
I do not want to hear your excuses. This is lame, and people who resort to using it for any reason less than physical and/or mental handicap so severe that rolling out and cutting cookie dough any other way would otherwise be impossible for them are also lame, and I don't mean they limp. Rolling and cutting real cookie dough is not too difficult for little children, nor, if you supervise them properly, is it the slightest bit dangerous. Note the presence of fairly thick and blunt plastic cookie cutters in my own photos.
Also please note that I have been doing this very thing, the rolling and the cutting, first under close supervision of my mother and siblings and then in concert with them, since I was a toddler. I never cut off any of my fingers. I never clubbed any family pets with the rolling pin, nor did I club my siblings.
Yes, doing it all, from scratch, was and is more "work." No, you do not belong in a kitchen if you consider any part of this actual work (unless it is your profession, of course, and even then, if it's so very taxing, I'd recommend you consider a career shift.) Yes, it did and does make a bigger mess (though I have found ways to limit this, as explained in these footnotes). Yes, you will have to actually spend time together while you supervise your children, and yes you will have to watch while they learn about shapes and textures, resource allocation and consequences, and yes you will all have to clean it up together afterward (again with the consequences), and yes you will have to watch them to make sure they don't burn themselves on the oven or the hot cookie sheet, or to be there with kisses and "I-told-you-so's" if they do, and no all the cookies that come out will not be of even thickness, texture, or "perfect"-looking.
Yes, you will have to take actual time, not just pretend to take time. Yes, you will have to learn that cookies can be an assortment of shapes and textures and doneness even within the same batch and still be perfect.
If you can't understand this or don't have the time to commit even to a project this benign, just go to a good local bakery and buy your cookies already made. Do not f*ck around. Do not waste your pancreas on this hideous, bad-tasting sh*t made by people who get their chocolate from plantations who grow it using child slave labor.
Don't pretend baking cookies from scratch is something you enjoy just because you feel like you should. Don't mug for the camera in lieu of sharing the true riches of your own unique life. Be real. Have the fun that's genuinely fun for you. It's easier and better -- honestly more rewarding -- for everyone in the long run.
Okay, back to rolling.
My mother used to roll out pie crust between two sheets of waxed paper. However, she taught us to roll out cookie dough on a floured board with a floured rolling pin.
The problems most people encounter using the flour method are (a) unacceptably inconsistent texture of the cookies, from the first one you cut out to the last one you cut out from the floury, leathery dregs of your dough, and (b) the unreasonably huge mess that can result, especially when children help. Now, I am not the brightest bulb in the box, but it did eventually occur to me as an adult that perhaps what works for pie crust also might work for cookie dough.
I was so right. I am a genius.
Here's what that looks like:
It is true that it takes a little more force to flatten the dough evenly doing it this way, especially dough like this that's a little sticky and has tons of chunks in it. It is also true that one way to make it easier on yourself is to just roll smaller chunks of dough at a time than you otherwise would, and this might mean a few extra steps per batch. However, this is what the dough looks like when you peel back the top sheet of parchment to begin cutting:
I know; if you didn't know what it was, well, ew. But since you know it's yummy, spicy cookie dough with moist and delicious dried fruits rolled into it, notice how glossy and unfloury it looks.
Here are almost the last cookies to be cut from the entire batch:
Notice that the dough looks exactly the same -- well, as close to exactly the same as my imprecise lighting technique and cheap-o digital camera could allow.
The rolling pin stayed dough- and flour-free throughout my cookie-creation process. The cutting board and counter stayed dough- and flour-free. I used the same two pieces of parchment over and over with each chunk of dough, so there was no waste. I used unbleached parchment which is entirely biodegradable, in pieces no larger than they had to be, and I don't do this every day of my life, so there will be no environmental devastation.
Except for the dishwashing, here's what clean-up looked like:
Need I say more?
(No, there will be no rant this time.)
Here is what I'm talking about with the fruit overlapping the edge of the cookie cutter and making shaping a little challenging:
There are a few things you can do about this. If the shape is simple enough, you (but not your child) can pare these things off with a very sharp knife while the cookie is still face down on the cutting board with the cutter around it. You (but not your child) can position the cookie as shown above and use kitchen shears to snip-shape the fruit. Or you or your child can just fold it under. Here's what that looks like, sort of: (These are a little blurry because I am folding dough with one finger while holding it up and shooting the pictures with the other. Sorry. I know I should have just dragged out my tripod.)
First, poink the fruity bits upward.
Then, fold them over.
Then, remove the cookie from the cutter and press the fruits gently into the cookie.
No, your cookies won't be perfect-looking. You know what, though? I have to tell you, I am not a fan of perfect, at least not in terms of perfectly even, perfectly matching, perfectly straight edges at all times or perfectly consistent consistency, especially if something might end up less yummy because of it. Depending on the context, of course, I tend to view this kind of perfection not only as an unreasonable expectation but as a goal which, taken to extremes or sought reflexively, has real potential to rob us. Of what? Of diversity and all the pleasure that brings. Obsessing over this kind of perfection while doing something as innocent as making cookies can become something that bleeds into the whole rest of your life, and before you know it, you can find that you've robbed yourself of both taste and flavor, not to mention perspective, all in pursuit of a unified appearance.
I like having some cookies that are slightly doughy and some cookies that are slightly burnt because some are thicker than others yet they all baked together at the same temperature for the same length of time. There are few pleasures more exquisite than the taste and texture of a lightly burnt raisin embedded in a crispy-footed gingerbread man with a doughy head. It's not just nostalgia. It's the magic of surprise.
When you are open to inconsistency, not a slave to the appearance of perfect uniformity, you can have fun. You can take the opportunity to sculpt.
You can enjoy things however they come out, as long as they're not completely ruined, and you can understand a whole range of goodness opportunities.
This is one of the main reasons to bake your own cookies in the first place. Yes, making your house smell nice, yes, spending time with other people doing something which is fun at every single step (even clean-up, if you're smart about things) -- you know, unless you're a mad, lone compulsive like me who's just scratching an itch -- but more than anything else, the point of baking your own cookies is to craft something that is made of you a little bit, something in which the people with whom you share the fruits of your labor can taste your pleasure in creating them.
Oops. I guess I ranted a little after all. Sorry.
One more thing, not a rant:
You may notice that I am wearing latex-free plastic gloves while making these cookies. "Why, Sara, how very food-service of you," you may have thought.
Oh, no. That's not it at all.
No, I just wear gloves to keep my hands clean. Clothes are easier to wash than cuticles, and this is some seriously sticky, stainy dough.
They're not biodegradable, these gloves. This irks me. I have a thousand uses for them around my house and studio, though, so I buy them by the 100-pack. Nevertheless, I am actively looking for an equally cheap latex-free alternative that won't suffocate wildlife if it escapes proper disposal. Please let me know if you know of something.
Now look at the finished cookies and be happy.