Lebkuchen have been made in Nuremberg since medieval times. This recipe for Nürnberger Lebkuchen (Nuremberg Lebkuchen) is from 1553! Isn’t that awesome? 😀
Nuremberg Lebkuchen History
Lebkuchen have a long tradition in Nuremberg. The first Lebküchner (Lebkuchen maker) was recorded in 1395 in Nuremberg. Medieval Lebkuchen were made with honey, sugar, flour and spices – no nuts, no eggs, no candied citrus peel. Honey hunters gathered honey from wild bee colonies in the large forest that surrounds Nuremberg (old drawing of honey hunters). In earlier times, the Nuremberg forest was also called “The bee garden of the Holy Roman Empire”. Nuremberg was also one of the two largest trade centers on the route from Italy to Northern Europe in medieval times. So there was no shortage of imported cane sugar and spices.
Niernberger Lezeltlach – Nuremberg Lebkuchen
Scroll down for the adapted recipe.
- 1 Maß honey
- 1 1/2 Pfund sugar
- 1 Vierling flour
- 1 Lot cinnamon
- 3 Lot nutmeg
- 1 1/2 Lot cloves
- 6 Lot ginger
- 1 Quintel mace
The recipe was published in The Cookbook Of Sabina Welserin: Recipe 163 – Niernberger Lezeltlach zu machen (in medieval German). Here‘s the English translation of the recipe: To make Nürnberger Lebkuchen.
Medieval Weights & Measures
The strange weights and measures puzzled me for some days: Maß, Pfund, Vierling, Lot, Quintel. In the 16th century, the Maß in Augsburg isn’t the same as the Maß in Munich. And the Nuremberg Pfund in 1550 is different than the Nuremberg Pfund in 1810.
Sabina Welser or Welserin lived in Augsburg or Nuremberg in 1553 when she published her cookbook. So I searched for weights in Augsburg and Nuremberg in the 16th century.
Maß or Maaß
- unit of volume; used to measure wine, beer & honey
- 1 Augsburger Maß (in 1537) = 1.428 liter (according to this source, pdf, p. 7) (I used this weight and volume conversion to convert liter to kilogram)
1 Maß honey (Augsburg, 1537) ≈ 2.1 kg / 4.5 lbs.
- unit of weight; used to measure sugar etc.
- 1 Nürnberger Pfund (in 1558) = 483 g (according to this source, pdf, p. 6)
1 1/2 Pfund sugar (Nuremberg, 1558) = 725 g / 1.6 lb.
- unit of volume; used to measure grains, flour etc.
- 1 Schaff = 8 Metzen (picture of Garser Metzen, 1344) = 32 Vierling = 128 Viertel = 512 Mäßle
- 1 Schaff = 205.3 liter (according to this source, pdf, p. 8)
- 1 Vierling = 6.42 liter
- 1 Vierling flour ≈ 2.7 kg (wheat flour) = 3.5 kg (whole wheat flour)
1 Vierling whole wheat flour (Bavaria, 16th century) ≈ 2.8 kg / 6.2 lbs.
Lot & Quintel
- unit of weight; used to measure spices etc.
- 1 Pfund = 16 Unzen = 32 Lot = 128 Quintel = 512 Sechzehntel = 7680 Grän (according to this source, pdf, p. 4)
1 Lot (Bavaria, 16th century) = 15 g
Quintel = 3.75 g
Medieval Gingerbread Ingredients
In the medieval era, flour contained more bran and was less finely ground than today. Therefore I used home-milled, coarse ground wheat flour. I combined 1 part coarse ground wholewheat flour with 1 part all-purpose flour for the medieval gingerbread.
As substitute, if you don’t have a grain mill at home, use graham flour. Or combine 1 part coarse ground whole wheat flour with 1 part all-purpose flour for the medieval gingerbread.
The vegetation in the Nuremberg forest consists mainly of pine trees, heather and some wildflowers. So to get the original medieval Nürnberger lebkuchen flavor it’s best to use honeydew, heath or wildflower honey.
In the medieval era, they would’ve used brown sugar. So, to stay true to the recipe, you can use muscovado sugar. But over the years, I baked the medieval lebkuchen sometimes with brown sugar and sometimes with ordinary white sugar. And both turned out the same: they looked and tasted the same.
Nuremberg lebkuchen are made with traditional gingerbread spices: cinnamon, cloves, ginger, cardamom, nutmeg & pepper. However, old gingerbread recipes are very special about how spices should be prepared for gingerbread. According to medieval lebkuchen recipes, you should never grind spices to a fine powder! Instead the spices should only be coarsely ground for more flavor. I used a mortar and pestle to crush the spices.
The medieval gingerbread recipe says to brush the top and bottom of the lebkuchen three times with rosewater. However, I tried both and I find that the lebkuchen with rosewater didn’t taste different than the lebkuchen without. But for truly decadent gingerbread, you can brush the top with rosewater before baking.
Related: How To Make Rosewater
Original Nürnberger Lebkuchen Recipe
- 1.5 lb. (700g) honey – honeydew, heath or wildflower honey
- 0.5 lb. (240g) muscovado sugar
- 2.1 lbs. (930g) wheat flour – I used sifted home milled wheat grains
- gingerbread spice mix 1 or 2
- optional: blanched almond halves
- optional: rosewater
Medieval Gingerbread Spice Mix 1
This is the original spice mix that Sabina Welserin published in her cookbook in 1553, except that I reduced the amount of nutmeg and mace because nutmeg is toxic in large amounts.
- 2 tsp cinnamon
- 1 tsp nutmeg
- 1 tbsp cloves
- 3 tbsp ginger
Medieval Gingerbread Spice Mix 2
Instead of the spice mix above, you can also use the following medieval Nürnberger Lebkuchen spice mix. This recipe is also from the 16th century and can be viewed in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg.
Both spice mixes are delicious but I prefer this gingerbread spice mix just a little bit more because it’s so cinnamony! 😀
- 4 tbsp cinnamon
- 2 tbsp ginger
- 1 tbsp cardamom
- two pinches of pepper
- two pinches of nutmeg
How To Make Medieval Nürnberger Lebkuchen
Coarsely crush the spices using a mortar and pestle. Combine flour and coarsely ground spices in a large bowl.
Combine honey and sugar in a pot and bring to a boil. Pour the hot honey over the flour-spice-mixture. Knead everything together. Or it works just as well, to just stir everything together with a large spoon. Now let the dough rest for about 30 minutes or 1 hour.
On a floured surface, roll out the dough to about 1/2″ (1cm). Cut out rectangles with a knife. Transfer the medieval gingerbread to lined baking sheets. If you want, you can decorate the lebkuchen with blanched almond halves.
Let the lebkuchen rest overnight at room temperature.
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Optional: Brush the top of the gingerbread with rosewater.
Bake the lebkuchen for 20 minutes. Put the Nürnberger lebkuchen into cookie tins immediately after you remove them from the oven while still hot.
Medieval Lebkuchen Vs. Modern Lebkuchen
If you’ve already made (or bought) Nuremberg lebkuchen before, don’t be disappointed that these aren’t like modern Nuremberg lebkuchen. 😉 Because they are really different! Today, Nuremberg lebkuchen are made with ground almonds and hazelnuts, marzipan, and eggs. Elisen lebkuchen are made without flour. And some non-traditional recipes even add butter to lebkuchen!
On the other hand, Medieval Nuremberg lebkuchen, are made with a lot of flour but don’t contain fat, nuts, eggs or other leavening agents, such as baking powder. These Medieval lebkuchen are the traditional form of lebkuchen. Medieval Nürnberger lebkuchen are hard like hardtack or the gingerbread hearts you may know from Oktoberfest.
Related: Traditional Hardtack Recipe
Medieval Nürnberger lebkuchen are also a lot spicier than you might be used from store-bought lebkuchen – but in a good way! Spices were a very expensive ingredient in the Medieval Period, so lebkuchen were a special treat at Christmas time. Sometimes, lebkuchen were gifted to poor children: This would’ve been a very special treat for them – probably like a once-in-a-lifetime treat!
Help! My Lebkuchen Turned Out Hard!
As I’ve mentioned before, medieval Nuremberg lebkuchen are hard like the gingerbread hearts that are sold at Oktoberfest. Because these lebkuchen are hard, they could be stored for a longer time, just like hardtack.
But there are some tricks to turn these rock-hard gingerbread cookies into less hard, edible cookies. But keep in mind, that the Medieval lebkuchen will never be as soft as modern lebkuchen that are made with nuts and eggs.
The first trick for soft lebkuchen is to put the lebkuchen into cookie tins immediately after you remove them from the oven while they’re still hot. Be careful, because the lebkuchen will still be almost too hot to touch but you have to be very quick or the lebkuchen loose their moisture and become hard. If the lebkuchen are cool enough to touch it’s too late! 😉
Lebkuchen are traditionally stored in metal cookie tins. But you can also store them in airtight glass cookie jars. I wouldn’t recommend storing them in plastic cookie containers because lebkuchen take on the plastic smell. Traditionally, lebkuchen are often stored together with an apple slice in Germany. However, if you’re worried about mold growing on the apple slice, you can also use a slice of fresh bread instead. But putting Medieval Nuremberg lebkuchen into tins while hot, is usually enough to make them soft enough to be edible.
Troubleshooting: How To Soften Hard Lebkuchen
Apart from the two tips above to make Medieval Nürnberger lebkuchen softer, there are three more ticks to soften up already cool, hard gingerbread cookies. First, you can try reheating them for a short time in the oven until they’re hot again. Then put the hot lebkuchen immediately into cookie tins.
Or you can leave Nuremberg lebkuchen on a plate for some weeks at room temperature: This usually softens up hard lebkuchen very effectively because they absorb the moisture from the air over time. Therefore lebkuchen were traditionally baked some weeks before Christmas!
Related: The Victorian Christmas Tree
And if you don’t want to wait that long, you can also dip Medival Nürnberger lebkuchen into tea, coffee or milk. Just like the Romans dipped their hard unleavened bread in wine and British sailors dunked hardtack in beer to soften it up!
And if everything fails and the gingerbread is still hard, you can use the medieval gingerbread to flavor applesauce or red cabbage, or make traditional German gingerbread gravy.
Update: “Fermenting” Gingerbread
Old gingerbread recipes often say to let the dough rest for weeks! Since I often bake wild yeast bread and sourdough bread from scratch, I wondered if this long rest time would help the gingerbread rise. So I started an experiment: I put the gingerbread in a bowl covered with a kitchen towel and let the dough ferment for two weeks at room temperature.
The high amount of honey in the gingerbread dough prevents spoilage or mold growth. However, the honey obviously also prevents the growths of wild yeasts or lactobacilli. Because even after two weeks at room temperature, the gingerbread dough didn’t smell or taste sour like sourdough or yeasty like wild yeast bread.
The “fermented” gingerbread dough looked and smelled exactly like fresh gingerbread dough. And even after baking, there was no difference between “fermented” and fresh gingerbread. So, either the rest time was still too short or the high amount of honey (or spices) in the gingerbread dough prevents the growth of wild yeasts and lactobacilli.
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