The Twelfth Night Diet, or, How Baking Elisen Lebkuchen Could Kickstart Your Year

This is a Christmas recipe, but I make no apology for posting it today. Today is 6 January, or Twelfth Night so a) Christmas isn’t over yet, b) as it’s Twelfth Night I shall turn the world upside down and do as I please. The doing as I please part will include making a tenuous claim that baking these deeply delicious, nutty, fruity, gingery, chocolatey, and – yes – sugary biscuits could help you lose weight. So there.

Twelfth Night revels

This is what we should be doing, not sitting around worrying about work on Monday

You have almost certainly had Lebkuchen of one sort or another. The term encompasses a wide variety of gingery German Christmas biscuits. The Elisen Lebkuche is the Queen of Lebkuchen. Her capital is at Nürnberg (also spelt Nuremberg), so they are also known as Nürnberger Lebkuchen.

Nurnberg Nuremberg

The lovely city of Nurnberg. Please ignore the gibbetty things in the foreground.

While the good people of northern Europe have been baking spicy, gingery biscuits to celebrate the good times since they finally got the trade routes sorted in the middle ages, this particular variety of Lebkuchen was first sold in the early 1800s. I have seen many claims on the Internet that  Elisen Lebkuchen were named after a gingerbread maker’s beautiful daughter Elise and not one shred of substantiation but it’s a nice story, so let’s go along with it.

The distinguishing feature of these biscuits is they contain no flour, a lot of nuts, and generous quantities of mixed peel and my personal favourite, crystallised ginger. They are simultaneously chewy and melt-in-the-mouth gorgeous. They are so good and keep so well that I would like you to very seriously consider doubling the quantities below.

The ‘real’ biscuits from Nürnberg come in beautiful tins and boxes and have the magnificent gravitas that only a food that’s been made by a guild of incredibly serious bakers for hundreds of years can carry off. This recipe doesn’t offer you that kind of authenticity but it does present you with the opportunity to eat Lebkuchen any time of year. If you wanted to make them less Christmassy you could use more crystallized ginger and less mixed peel.

Lebkuchen UFO Nuremberg 1561

If you Google ‘nuremberg 1561’ you will find a number of websites claiming that this news sheet records a flight of UFOs passing over Nurnberg. Those aren’t UFOs you crazy people – they’re quite obviously Lebkuchen.

So here’s the diet part: After you’ve made the mixture you have to wait 24 hours to bake these little beauties. And after that you can’t eat them straightaway. In fact you have to wait another TEN DAYS. I hereby challenge you to go the whole eleven days without eating anything sugary. With Elisen Lebkuchen to look forward to at the end that should be easy. Says the Lady of Biscuit Misrule.

Elisen Lebkuchen (makes 30ish)

250g caster sugar
3 large eggs
½ teaspoon vanilla essence
100g chopped hazelnuts
160g ground almonds (ideally ground at home in the blender, so they are gritty rather than powdery)
25g walnuts, roughly chopped
1 tbsp. crystallised ginger, finely chopped (if you are a ginger fiend like me leave some lumps)
100g mixed peel, finely chopped (or whizzed but not pulverised in the blender)
½ tsp. cinnamon
⅓ tsp. each of ground cloves, coriander, allspice, nutmeg and cardamom
finely grated zest of ½ lemon and ½ orange
rice paper cut into 8cm circles (you will need about 30 – make 20 at first then see how many more you need)
1 apple
200g dark chocolate

Beat the eggs, sugar and vanilla essence until the eggs are foaming and all the sugar has completely dissolved. Then stir in the nuts, ginger, spices, mixed peel and grated orange and lemon zest.

spicy mix

Stir for just long enough to combine the ingredients. The mixture will look runny. That’s fine. You’ll see.

Cover the bowl and leave it in the fridge for 24 hours.

Next day preheat the oven to 200 C. Arrange some of your rice paper circles on a baking tray. You need to leave at least 2 cm between circles, so you won’t get many on a tray.

paper circles

These are 5 cm circles. They were too small. Go for 8 cm, maybe 12 cm.

After a day in the fridge the biscuit mix should be nice and firm – more like dough. Take a large pinch and roll it into a ball. It should be about 7 cm in diameter – so when you set it on a piece of rice paper there’s half a centimetre of paper left showing all the way round.

When you’ve filled a tray pop it in the oven. Leave the Lebkuchen in for 12-15 minutes until they are light brown. It’s very important not to overdo them – the middle needs to stay soft and sticky. Transfer to a wire rack to cool and load up another tray. Repeat till all your mix is used up.

baked

When the biscuits are room temperature take a large piece of greaseproof paper and line an airtight box or tin. Put the biscuits in and tuck the paper over so they’re loosely wrapped.

Now – weird but true – lay the peel of an apple on the paper. This helps keep the biscuits moist and will eventually make them smell like a very beautiful medieval orchard.

biscuits and peel

Seal up the tin, put the tin in the cupboard, close the cupboard and forget they are there for ten whole days.

Almost there.

To finish them off gently melt the chocolate and use it to coat the biscuits. Wait a bit longer for the chocolate to set.

Elisen Lebkuchen

And then devour.

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Open-arse tart

This is a sad story. It was forged in ardent romantic illusion and quenched – this very evening – in the cold mud of disappointment. There will be a flutter of redemption and solace at the end, but not enough to match the initial high hopes. I was in love with something I had never seen or touched. I had heard great things, of its soft scent, its delicious flavour, its near magical powers to transform from something hard, cold and green to tender, giving, open flesh almost in the blink of an eye. The object of my imaginary desires was the medlar.

Medlar blossom

Let’s start with a pretty picture of medlar blossom to represent the dream.

My appetite was whetted by occasional references on Gardeners’ Question Time and a short account of the fruit in Andrew Dalby’s excellent The Shakespeare Cookbook. The attractive and intriguing traits of the medlar are these. It does not ripen like ordinary fruit – or at least it does, but it’s not ready to eat until it’s rotted, or more properly ‘bletted’. It is like an apple in miniature, arranged around five pips, but while these are larger than apple pips, the fruit is smaller. But best of all, it sounds like a fruit with a sense of fun and humour, for it was known, in the sixteenth century as an ‘open-arse’. If you look at it from a certain angle you can see what those jolly Elizabethans meant.

medlar open arse

This is the bottom of the fruit

My interest in the medlar was not easy to satisfy. It’s not for sale in shops. But then, at the beginning of this month, it was for sale at the farmers’ market, so I bought a punnet and took it home. I laid the little greeny-brown fruits out on the dining table and waited for them to blet. And waited. And waited. Not only did they take ages to blet, they did it one at a time. About one a day. It has taken almost three weeks for the whole lot to reach the edible stage. What happens is the firm apple-like greeny-white flesh turns a soft dark brown.

Medlars bletting

Medlars stubbornly waiting to blet

This was my first indication that the medlar might be hard to love but there were two redeeming features. The bletted fruit had delicately spotted skin and smelt exactly like an orchard on a damp morning, a smell I happen to like.

This evening I set to making a bastardised version of the medlar tart in The Shakespeare Cookbook. And this led to by second disappointment. The medlar did not give its flesh up easily. Maybe my medlars were smaller or more bletted than the ones Andrew Dalby had in mind. His suggested method was to “cut the medlars in half and scoop out the soft flesh with a teaspoon”. I ended up with a tiresome mixture of pulp, pips and skin on my hand and not much in the bowl. For me, grumpy squeezing and picking out the pips worked best in the end.

Will there be a third disappointment? Will the medlar be as fragrant and delightful to eat as they all promised… Find out in a few short lines after the recipe:

Pastry
225g plain flour
grated zest of ½ lemon
tiny pinch of salt
110g unsalted butter
½ tbsp caster sugar
2-3 tbsp cold water

 Filling
at least a dozen bletted medlars*
2 tbsp soft brown sugar
2cm3 fresh ginger
150ml whipping cream1 egg, separated
1 tsp cinnamon
* If you don’t have medlars, and you probably don’t, you could try replacing them with a large peeled and grated Bramley apple.

Preheat the oven to 180°C (reduce for a fan oven). Butter a tart or flan case.

In a mixing bowl stir together the flour, salt and lemon zest. Lightly rub in the butter. When you reach the rough breadcrumb stage stir in the sugar. Add the water one tablespoon at a time and stir with a fork until the crumbs start to bind. Give them a quick squeeze to bring it all together as pastry. Press this into the tart case, prick the base all over with a fork, and bake for twenty minutes.

Pricked tart case

When it’s done remove it from the oven and turn the heat down 20°.

Meanwhile, get the pulp out of those medlars any way you can. Put it in a saucepan with the brown sugar and grate in the ginger. Heat gently and stir till this mixture is smooth. Add the cream and heat again until it’s hot but not boiling. Beat the egg yolk and stir it in. Keep heating and stirring until the mixture thickens.

Pour this custardy mix into the cooked flan case. Bake for another fifteen minutes.

tart baked but not covered

Baked filling

I felt uncomfortable with the nakedness of my tart so I whipped up the egg white with a spoonful of caster sugar to make a soft topping. Spread this on and bake for another ten to fifteen minutes.

Tart with meringue topping

Less of an open-arse, more of a full moon

Tasting notes: Actually not bad. I’d cook it again if somebody brought the medlars round to my house ready-bletted and got the pulp out for me.

Soul cakes: food for the quick and the dead

If you like beer, golden syrup and releasing tormented souls from Purgatory you’ll love soul cakes.

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/53/Folio_113v_-_Purgatory.jpg/552px-Folio_113v_-_Purgatory.jpg

People still make soul cakes in Britain today but they used to make them with a purpose. In Merry England – that is the days before Henry VIII deprived us of all the best architecture and fun superstitions by falling out with the Pope – they were set out on the evening of 1 November with a glass of ale or wine in remembrance of the souls of the dead. The following day, All Souls Day, children, poor people and mummers (the medieval version of the village amateur dramatic society) went round begging for the uneaten cakes, singing or chanting:

Soul, soul, a soul cake! I pray thee, good missus, a soul cake!
One for Peter, two for Paul, three for Him what made us all!
Soul cake, soul cake, please good missus, a soul cake.
An apple, a pear, a plum, or a cherry, any good thing to make us all merry.
One for Peter, two for Paul and three for Him who made us all.

The tradition was that every cake eaten released a soul from Purgatory. Presumably giving it away to those who came asking for it was also good for the soul of the ‘good missus’ who gave it away. And presumably eating it was a pleasure for those who ate it and good for their souls too because they were helping a soul out of Purgatory. That’s some powerful cake.

There are alternative names for soul cakes. I’ve seen them referred to as Thor’s cakes which sounds very thrillingly pagan, but as the big Norse celebrations of Thor were held in midwinter not the start of winter this is probably a fanciful mishearing of harcakes, a name still used in Lancashire today. Potter fans may wonder if JK was thinking of harcakes when she came up with the term ‘horcrux’, a place for keeping little bits of soul.

There are a variety of recipes floating around the internet for soul cakes. The common ingredients are spice and butter. Some are made with oats, others with flour. Some are made with golden syrup, others with sugar. After I’d made these I realised honey would have been a much more likely sweetener for medieval bakers. Something to try next time.

This somewhat flapjacky recipe (based on one I found at www.historicalfoods.com) includes beer – a good dark flavour to offset the sweetness and spice, and a reminder of the drink set out for the souls of the dead.

60g unsalted butter (at room temperature, not straight from the fridge)
500g oatmeal
350 ml golden syrup
2tsp ground ginger
½ tsp allspice
1 egg, beaten
200ml dark ale (maybe a bit more)

Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Grease a shallow baking tray and line it with baking parchment.

Rub the butter into the oatmeal. Unlike rubbing butter into flour this does not result in something that looks like fine breadcrumbs, rather something that looks and feels a lot like wet sand. Sprinkle in the spice and add the syrup. Stir vigorously to get the syrup evenly distributed. Finally add the beaten egg and beer and stir vigorously again until you have an even, thick batter. Pour this into your baking tray and stick it in the oven.

After forty-five minutes take the tray out and use a table knife to score lines horizontally and vertically across the cake about 5cm apart.

soul cake or harcake

The whole soul cake

Return the cake to the oven and bake for another 15 minutes.

Remove and cool for at least half an hour before turning out of the tray. When the cake has completely cooled cut it into small squares. If you have your lines nicely spaced you will end up with a cross over each square – the sign of food destined to be given away as alms.

Store the pieces for 3 days or longer in an airtight tin to let the flavours settle and combine. If you make it today it will just be ready in time for All Souls’ Day on Friday

soul cake

Soul-sized bites.