(This article appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
Switzerland’s capital city, Bern, has played an important part in the history of sweet baking in Northern Europe. Its traditional Lebkuchen, or honey cakes, available in several forms, have ties linking them as far back as the ancient Romans. Although considerably refined since Roman times, Berner Lebkuchen continue in popularity.
Honey and sugar in the ancient world
Honey was the major sweetener used by the ancient Greeks and Romans. Although sugar cane had been under cultivation in New Guinea since 8,000 BCE, refined sugar didn’t reach Persia until around the sixth century, and then it trickled into Europe over the next several hundred years. And while the Greeks ate primitive pancakes sweetened with honey for breakfast, it was the Romans who began the tradition of sweet baking that persists in several forms throughout Europe.
Early sweet baking in Europe
At the height of its decadence, Rome was a culture of festivals where the number of holidays in a year had begun to outnumber working days. Many holidays were celebrated with bawdy fertility rites that included servings of mustaceum, a cake made of rye or wheat flour, curd cheese, and herbs, sweetened with honey and wrapped in large laurel-like leaves to protect it during baking; the cakes were presumably washed down with plenty of wine. Today’s southern Italian mostaccioli, spiced honey cakes made during the Christmas season, are the direct descendants of the Romans’ mustaceum. And although several interesting varieties of mostaccioli are still popular in Italy, honey cakes came into their own further north. During the Middle Ages, the culture of Lebkuchen was born in Switzerland, Germany, and Austria.
Origin of Lebkuchen
The root meaning of the name Lebkuchen has been lost, although there are many plausible explanations. While kuchen is ‘cake’ in German, the particle ‘leb’ may refer to Old German expressions for crystallized honey, sweetness, or even loaf. These spiced honey cakes first appeared in monasteries in the late Middle Ages. Spices were already being imported from the East, and the cultivation of wheat had improved to the extent of yielding fine baking flours. Monasteries already had baking areas where altar breads of unleavened wheat starch were made for use in Holy Communion, and in fact, some early Lebkuchen were actually backed with the same unleavened material to keep the cakes from sticking during baking. Although monastic recipes were closely guarded secrets, eventually information leaked to the outside and Lebkuchen were also prepared in the homes of the wealthy and in early food shops.
Berner Lebkuchen today
To see the preparation of Lebkuchen firsthand, I visited Alexander Reinhard, the fourth-generation owner of Bäckerei Reinhard, in Bolligen, a suburb of Bern. As it was early fall, Lebkuchen production for the upcoming holidays was in full swing. The dough, dark and rich in honey and spices, is sheeted out to a one quarter-inch thickness and pressed into traditional wooden molds by hand. Thickness varies according to the size and shape of the molds, which can be round, rectangular, and specialty shapes such as comets and hearts. The transformation of this somewhat primitive dough to a world-class specialty occurs when fine royal icing decorations of graceful complexity are piped onto the cooled Lebkuchen by skilled decorators. A bear or bears, the city’s mascot, appear in many decorating designs. While the tradition of royal icing decoration is less than 100 years old, it is the unmistakable trademark of fine Berner Lebkuchen.
Alexander Reinhard has definite ideas about the sustainability of his products. He says, “We are all about local ingredients and we insist that at least 80 percent of the ingredients we use are artisanally produced.” He also commented that there is a special dedication in avoiding waste: “We try to keep our waste down to about 3 percent of what’s produced so that leftovers are given to employees, charitable organizations, and a new class of Swiss food stores that sell slightly-less-than-fresh goods at discounted prices.” Managing a small chain of four retail units besides his main production area is challenging and involves a fairly intricate system of ordering and transferring still-fresh goods among the units. In the hands of practitioners like Alexander Reinhard, Berner Lebkuchen will continue far into the future.
Adapted from Continental Confectionery by Walter Bachmann (London, 1955)
- 28 g ground cinnamon
- 21 g ground cloves
- 14 g ground nutmeg
- 21 g ground ginger
- 35 g ground fennel seeds
- 35 g ground coriander
- 35 g ground aniseed
1. Combine the spices well.
- 268 kg honey
- 907 g granulated sugar, divided
- 148 ml water
- 11 large egg yolks
- 309 kg flour (medium strength)
- 113 g Lebkuchen spice (above)
- 57 g baking soda
- 340 g unsalted butter, soft
- 444 ml whole milk
- Caramel color
1. Warm the honey, 567 g of the sugar, and water.
2. Whip the yolks and the remaining 340 g sugar to a foam.
3. Place the flour in the bowl of a stand mixer and add honey mixture, egg yolk foam, and remaining ingredients. Mix on low speed with dough hook until smooth. Age the dough for 24 hours.
4. Sheet to 1/2-inch and cut desired shapes.
5. Bake at 300˚F until risen but still soft, about 15 minutes. Cool and decorate as desired.