If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful. ~ William Morris

25 December, 2018

The Mystery of Lebkuchen, Black Walnuts and a Merry Christmas

"No one is useless who lightens the burden of another." ~ Charles Dickens

This year was the first year in some time that I tried some new recipes.  Last year I barely had the energy to muster up enough Christmas spirit to muddle through the holiday.  This year I juggled remaining coursework for my classes, but still managed to get some baking in.

In honor of uncovering my very German heritage this past year through the discovery of my previously unknown paternal family history, (mind you I already had a healthy dose of German in my maternal grandmother) I was inspired to try a Lebkuchen round.  It also appealed to my recipe (or receipt depending on how far you go back) research on historical food ways. Yes, I have been known to read cookbooks and household books of antiquity for fun and entertainment. 

As with most heritage recipes, its history is an interesting shade of gray.  Some say it translates literally as "life cake," others "loaf cake." I was also intrigued by their lineage, going back perhaps to the 1200's or longer, making their way like many rarities through the hands of monks and then becoming a holiday staple.  Rich in spices and then later nuts and candied fruits and glazed they became a specialty. 

Virginia Pasley's The Christmas Cookie Book listed no less than three versions. I chose the more common "round" as opposed to the cakes. 

I was most intrigued by the amount of honey.  I was certain it was once considered a digestive and probably a health cookie.  The interesting thing was its longevity, supposedly getting better with age. 

My first impression of the dough was that there was no human way to roll it out, much less cut it into rounds.  It was a goopy, sticky mess.  But after sitting a day in the refrigerator, it went much more smoothly than I imagined.  (I am also struggling with the need to be gluten free, so I can never be sure how regular recipes will transfer.)

I was also blessed to have some real candied angelica on hand to add, along with some slivered almonds.

Because it was my first time making them, I opted not to include a glaze figuring that with a cup of honey per batch as well as brown sugar, the sweetness would be plenty. 

I somehow managed a successful batch and the first bite both intrigued and surprised me.  It was chewy.  Very.  But not dry, although it seemed it should be, and the more you chewed it the more the honey seemed to appear.  It was indeed good, and definitely a cookie for the "older set." Missing the sprinkles, frosting and chocolate and having a high spice content, I can't see many children loving this cookie.  But it is truly the ideal tea or coffee cookie, or breakfast, if the case may be.  In the cookie box, they are unassuming and plain, unless you opt for the glaze.  I was glad that I didn't. 

My other culinary experience this year was with the black walnut.  My first time.  Having a black walnut tree in back of my house and thinking someday I might go through the laborious task of harvesting some, I bought a bag from a reputable national purveyor.  As a matter of fact the store selling them was almost out.  I was excited and filled with the expectation of some kind of mysterious nut-filled experience.  I rushed home, opened the bag and was filled with ...

disappointment, horror and even disgust. 

They smelled like nail polish, and left a horribly bitter after taste.  THIS is a black walnut????!!! I thought.  So I hopped on-line, hoping I had simply gotten a bad bag and indeed they were described as having the scent and odor of everything from bleu cheese to mustiness and being an 'acquired' taste.  I couldn't have been more saddened given my love of English walnuts in brownies and cookies and fudge. 

I can't imagine what the cooks of yore were thinking when they put in cups of the stuff into recipes while most modern black walnut lovers suggested a "sprinkling."  Yuck.  So much for that! 

I also made a favorite fruitcake recipe in the antique gem pan (a real fruit cake, with real organic dried fruit, no neon colored fruit remnants here) chocolate gingerbread, Italian chocolate, cut-outs, hot cha cha's, peanut blossoms, and almond joy cookies. I'm still not exactly sure how I got it all done in about 3 days, but I did.

And it was just in time for a pre-Christmas celebration with my oldest daughter who couldn't make it Christmas eve this year (in which we broke out the Rumptof, which goes surprisingly well with ginger ale) and then a quiet but lovely Christmas eve and day at home with the remaining children and my husband.  We watched a wonderful movie about the writing of A Christmas Carol called 'The Man Who Invented Christmas,' and watched our favorite performance of the book with Patrick Stewart on Christmas Day.  I may myself read through the original this evening, because it is truly literary perfection. 

And with that in mind, may your holiday season bring you joy, and your new year gladness, and may God bless us, every one.
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