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.

Advertisements

Salad for one

It’s been a while since I posted, mainly thanks to the onset of pre-Christmas baking madness. More of this in a forthcoming post.

Meanwhile here’s a quick post on a somewhat peculiar salad. I started out thinking, ‘Mmm… avocado and spinach,’ then added some other ingredients. It  may not be to everyone’s taste, hence ‘salad for one’, but I enjoyed it. It’s savoury, warming and fresh all at the same time and feels like a good antidote to too many late nights baking, too many of those mince pies I eat out of politeness at work, and too much winter.

Salad for one
Serves one

150g baby spinach
1/4 cucumber
1 ripe avocado
2 cooked beetroots
1/4 jar anchovies
25g walnut pieces
olive oil
sherry vinegar
salt and pepper
a shake of Tabasco

Wash and slice the cucumber into half or quarter-circles. Peel and chop the avocado into cubes. Cut the beetroot into sticks or chunks. Cut the anchovies into the smallest pieces you can. Mix all this up with the walnuts in your salad bowl. Season with olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper and Tabasco.

Leave the salad on the side till all the ingredients are room temperature and have had time to get to know each other.

Enjoy.

Spinach, walnut, avocado, beetroot, cucumber, anchovy salad

It’s ready when all the ingredients are a little bit purple

Banana bread for beginners

I enjoy baking too much to do it casually. I like to do it when I have  the mental and physical space to get it just right. I moved to the flat where I live in March this year and have finally put up enough shelves, painted enough walls and hung enough pictures to feel like I can spend a quiet afternoon baking (and start a blog).

Banana bread is one of the first things I ever learned to bake on my own (cutting out pastry your mother made and spooning jam into the rounds is fun but does not count as baking). So it seemed appropriate to go back to the beginning for this first post and the first baking session in my new place.

The recipe I based today’s banana bread on comes from a German book called Back Vergnugen Wie Noch Nie – Das grosse GU Bild-Backbuch in Farb (1987). The title means something like ‘Enjoy Baking As Never Before – the big GU colour-picture-baking- book’. While the banana bread recipe is fairly simple the book also contains some seriously advanced material: proper prezels, zwetschgendatschi (damsons baked in yeast dough), Sachertorte, brioches, croissants and about forty different styles of bread. The book belongs to my mother, and she has promised it to my sister, but in the meantime nobody seems to have noticed it’s on my shelves.

There’s actually nothing all that special about this banana bread. It’s more soothing than exciting. But sometimes that’s what you need.

Ingredients for one loaf
(I used a tin roughly 25cm x 15cm x 8cm)

150g spreadable butter (plus a tiny bit to grease the tin)*
160g soft dark brown sugar
3 eggs
4 very ripe small bananas
seeds of 1 vanilla pod
1/2 tsp cinnamon
pinch salt
350g wholemeal flour
3 tsp baking powder
100g chopped walnuts
125ml milk

Put the oven shelf on the second level up from the bottom and pre-heat to 170C. Grease the baking tin.

In a big mixing bowl stir together the ‘butter’ and sugar as vigorously as you can. The sugar needs to dissolve into the fat completely. You’ll know you’ve stirred enough when the muscle on the top of your forearm aches and the mixture suddenly turns several shades paler.

Next stir in the eggs one at a time. Only add a new egg when the mixture is perfectly smooth.

Peel the bananas and put them in a separate bowl with the salt, vanilla and cinnamon. Mash them up with a fork. It’s OK to leave a few lumps as they give the banana bread a more varied and pleasing texture.

Stir the banana mash into the butter-sugar-egg mixture (there should be a name for this stuff – if there is let me know).

Now sieve the flour and baking powder into the bowl and throw in the nuts. Add the milk and stir one last time.

Spoon the mixture into your tin. Smooth off the top – not so much to make it flat as to make sure the mixture gets into all the corners of the tin.

Bake for 45 minutes before taking the loaf out and poking a skewer in to see if it’s done. If the skewer comes out clean and the loaf has come away from the edges of the tin turn it out onto a rack to cool. If it’s still  doughy put the loaf back in for ten minutes before trying again. The baking time for this loaf is likely to be variable depending on the size of your eggs and the juiciness of your bananas, but it should definitely be done after an hour and ten.

Good with coffee, tea, milk and also sherry.

* STRONG DISCLAIMER: Normally I would use good, honest, straightforward ordinary butter. I love butter and think margarine is the devil’s own ear wax. But the GU book is always right and they called for very soft margarine so I thought I’d better meet them half-way).