Christmas Lebkuchen: the original Chanukah Cookie
Jacob Schor, ND, FABNO
December 21, 2015
Gingerbread is the Americanized version of an often neglected traditional food eaten in celebration of both Christmas and Chanukah. These traditional cookies are called Lebkuchen in German and are eaten throughout Europe during the Christmas season. Many people mistakenly think of them as a Christmas cookies only. This idea of lebkuchen being a Chanukah treat was brought to my attention recently by our good friend the reference librarian who read to us from The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food by Gil Marks, about how German Jews made these German Christmas cookies, originally baked in monasteries, in the shape of the Star of David as part of their Chanukah celebrations.
It is unclear where the actual name lebkuchen comes from. There is a word in old German ‘Laib’ for loaf, perhaps a cousin of the Latin, libum, (for flat bread), though the German term, lebbe, meaning very sweet, makes the most sense. There is an old German term, Leb-Honig, used to describe crystalized honey that is used for baking.
Kuchen of course means cake, so there you have it, a very sweet, honey, flatbread kind of cake.
Honey cakes can be traced back to the Romans, Greeks and Egyptians. Thus it is not inconceivable that some earlier form of Lebkuchen was eaten to celebrate the rededication of the Second Temple some two thousand years ago, the event that Chanukah still marks.
Records of more ‘modern’ versions of Lebkuchen date back to 1296 in Ulm and 1395 in Nuremberg. Nuremberg officially recognized the “League of Lebkuchen-Bakers” in 1643, who then set strict guidelines for Lebkuchen bakers published in 1645.
A flourless version of Lebkuchen made in Nuremberg dates back to 1808 and is called Elisenlebkuchen. Who exactly Elise was is unclear. Some say she was the daughter of a Lebkuchen baker. The easy assumption that Elise had celiac disease and the cookies were made for her is probably not true since celiac disease wasn’t recognized until the 1950s, yet it is certainly a good story.
Technically, the name lebkuchen is now Guild Protected and only cookies made within the boundaries of Nuremberg can be called lebkuchen. Calling these ginger bread is a sorry excuse for our Americanized simple tastes.
Traditionally, along with honey, these cookies were heavily spiced with aniseed, coriander, cloves, ginger, cardamom, and allspice, and nuts including almonds, hazelnuts, and walnuts, plus candied fruit. Molasses, the dominant flavor in modern gingerbread was not part of these early recipes as back in the thirteenth century there was no molasses. At least not in Germany.
The process of boiling down pressed sugar cane juice to make crystallized sugar dates back to 500 BC in India. Yet this process was slow to reach Europe, arriving only with the Arab invasion of Spain. Columbus brought sugar cane to the West Indies and from there the sugar industry took root. This lead to the infamous trade triangle of the 17th century in which sugar cane grown in the West Indies yielded molasses that was made into the rum sold to African slave traders who in turn supplied the slaves to grow the sugar came. This history casts a deep bitter note on what otherwise might be considered an interesting sweetener.
These early lebkuchen bakers were not fixated about eating only locally grown foods. Coriander may have been the only one of the spices in the cookies spices that could be grown in Germany. At least we can grow it here in Denver. The other spices all had to be imported from Asia. Thus these cookies were not just sweet but must have been incredibly exotic tasting and rather expensive to make.
It is this wide variety of exotic spices found in lebkuchen that links these Christmas cookies with Chanukah. The import of spices from the Far East was for centuries controlled by Jewish merchants. These Jewish specialists in global trade, at a time, when most people still thought that the world was flat, were known as Radhanites. 
The Jewish community of Colchin, India, while best known for exporting both saffron and saffron’s close relative, the gout remedy colchicum, was also the hub of spice export to the European center of the spice trade, Nuremberg. The bakers of Nuremberg had the good fortune of having spices readily available, spices that were near impossible to obtain elsewhere.
These cookies were by no means parochial. Christian monks were among the first to bake these cookies. We should say Catholic monks because they have bequeathed the cookies a lasting and distinctive appearance, one that may not be easily duplicated. Nonstick silicone sheets, not being available to prevent the cookies from sticking, the monks made do with what they had. They baked each individual ball of cookie dough on top of a communion wafer. Communion wafers while they may be modeled after the matzo served during Passover, are not easily replaced with matzo. These communion-baking wafers are called oblaten in German and can be purchased online. [2,3]
Use of ginger in oncology has been of great interest in recent years. It’s well known use for reducing chemotherapy induced nausea hardly needs repeating.
Ginger may also reduce risk of colon cancer:
Much of this effect has been attributed to ginger’s anti-inflammatory action; it is a close relative of turmeric. This anti-inflammatory action, in particular of the NfkappaB inflammatory pathway, is why researchers think ginger inhibits growth of ovarian cancer.
Recently interest has focused on a constituent of ginger called 6-Shogaol  and refining ginger to increase levels of this constituent may in time increase the effectiveness of ginger extracts as a cancer adjunctive therapy.
The recipes for Elisenlebkuchen should be of special interest these days as being made without flour they achieve ‘gluten free’ status. Of course one needs to overlook the oblaten wafers embedded in the bottom of the cookie. The only ingredient in the wafer, as in matzo, is wheat flour.
Most modern recipes rely on the candied fruit typically used in fruitcakes. Few of our readers like the idea of using this ingredient because of both the artificial colorings and the sugar content. Early versions of these cookies probably relied on dried fruit because honey would have been too expensive and sugar still nonexistent. Some recipes omit all fruit just using candied lemon and orange peel. Few current recipes use honey and the rare recipes that do use only honey contain flour. What I want is a honey sweetened, totally wheat free elisenlebkuchen recipe.
Perhaps rice paper of the sort used in Vietnamese spring rolls will double for the oblaten wafers? Kind of. One can, if so inspired, trace 2-3 inch circles on Vietnamese spring roll rice papers and carefully cut out circles with sissors, and then substitute these as gluten free oblaten wafers, of a sort. Or you can skip the wafer and just bake these cookies on a baking sheet. I tried doing this both ways and do not think the rice wafer was worth the effort. I scoop the dough out with an icecream scoop and then flatten the dough with wet finger tips.
GLUTEN FREE, ALL HONEY LEBKUCHEN
Salt 1/2 t
Cinnamon 2 t
Cloves ½ t
Ginger 1 t
Nutmeg ¼ t
Gluten free flour 1 cup [King Arthurs’]
Baking soda ½ t
Ground nuts 3 cups walnuts ground
1.5 c almond flour
MIX DRY INGREDIENTS
ADD IN FRUIT
Lemon zest 1T
dried fruit (soaked with Lemon juice/ OR RUM 1 T ) 1 c (out of laziness I used raisins, but would suggest something more fun)
Honey 3/4 cup
WARM HONEY. BEAT EGG AND MIX INTO HONEY. ADD TO DRY INGREDIENTS AND MIX THOROUGHLY
BAKE AT 325 TO 350 UNTIL DONE.
Links to a few online Lebkuchen recipes:
Other Christmas and Chanukah Recipes from past years:
Poppy seed stollen: http://denvernaturopathic.com/poppyseedstollen.htm
Turkey and Mennorahs: http://denvernaturopathic.com/TurkeyandMenorah.htm
Honey Cake with citrus and olive oil: http://denvernaturopathic.com/orange-nut-oliveoil-honey-cake-recipe.htm
Dairy Meals on Chanukah: http://denvernaturopathic.com/DiaryMealsonChanukah.htm
Fish and Chips on Chanukah: http://denvernaturopathic.com/FishChips.htm
Chille Rellenos on Chanukah: http://denvernaturopathic.com/chanukah2009chilirellenos.htm
Chanukah latkes: http://denvernaturopathic.com/news/chanukah.html
Gluten free chocolate torte: http://denvernaturopathic.com/news/ChocolateTorte.html
4. Ginger inhibits cell growth and modulates angiogenic factors in ovarian cancer cells.
Rhode J1, Fogoros S, Zick S, Wahl H, Griffith KA, Huang J, Liu JR.
5. Ray A, Vasudevan S, Sengupta S. 6-Shogaol Inhibits Breast Cancer Cells and Stem Cell-Like Spheroids by Modulation of Notch Signaling Pathway and Induction of Autophagic CellDeath. PLoS One. 2015 Sep 10;10(9):e0137614.