My grandma lived in the country, in a tiny village in Germany. We lived in a big city, about five hours drive away, so we got to visit “Oma and Opa” only a few times a year. My grandma was a very good cook and baker. If she wasn’t pottering around in the kitchen she would sit in her big armchair by the window and knit. She had a big old telephone, black, with an enormous and heavy receiver, that she loved chatting into. Her house smelled permanently of apples cooking on the stove, or plum tarts baking in the oven.
Oma had had a hard time in the war, and afterwards too, when she, and her children went hungry. It seemed funny to me as a kid, to see Oma swoon every time we went grocery shopping with her. She would just stand in front of the butter section of the supermarket for a full ten minutes or so, just drinking it all in. That she could buy as much butter as she wanted was still an amazement to her. So, of course, her cooking was rich and full-flavoured. Christmas especially was a time of revelling in our current good fortune.
Oma never used recipes for anything that I can remember. She never used to weigh anything either. I watched in wonder as she just piled and chucked a handful of this and that into a mixing bowl, stir it all up, judge its consistency, taste it, and then with a nod of approval pour it into a cake tin. After an hour or so, out came the most amazing cake or dessert. Her cellar was lined with preserving jars of cherries and apricots and peaches. She had two big wooden crates, one full of apples, one full of potatoes for the winter.
At the start of Advent she would make Christmas biscuits that were then served up through the festive season all the way up to the Epiphany on the 6th of January. My three aunts would groan, as she baked outrageous quantities of gingerbread, rum hearts, jam pillows, cinnamon stars, and vanilla flavoured festive biscuits. Each year she would bake a whole removalist’s box full of biscuits. Yes, a whole removalist’s box! When her children came to visit, she would scoop out and give a whole basket full to them. They wanted to make their own christmas biscuits, and complained bitterly. I loved the removalist’s box.
When we moved to Australia, she wrote down some Christmas recipes for us, so we could make our own. She was very worried about us. Then when we went back to visit after a few years, she wrote another version down for me, as I asked for it. The recipe below is a concoction of both receipts that I’ve adapted to work well for me. A few years ago, I tried making a much simpler recipe out of a donna hay magazine, thinking I could cut corners with my pre-christmas time. But no, Grandma’s recipe, though it’s much more time involved, tastes like ‘real’ gingerbread to me.
You can use it for both gingerbread houses and cutting out shapes. My kids love cutting out the shapes and then decorating the cooled biscuits with icing sugar. The smell of the kitchen when I bake Christmas biscuits brings back my grandma’s generous heart every time. She used to cook for a few extra people, just in case a hungry person would knock at her door. She personified the ‘season of giving’. I hope you enjoy this recipe for golden gingerbread as much as I do, year in, year out.
Gingerbread (Lebkuchen) Recipe
1/8 litre Milk (125ml)
500g Plain Flour (or 400 g Flour and 100g almond meal)
Grated rind off 1 lemon and 1 orange
2 heaped tsp mixed spice (I make my own out of ginger, cardamom, cloves, nutmeg)
1 tbsp cocoa powder (unsweetened) – sifted
1 tsp baking powder
Place sugar, butter, and honey, in a saucepan, bring to the boil, simmer stirring until all the sugar is dissolved, then let it cool slightly. Add the milk, eggs, lemon and orange rind, spices and cocoa. Take it off the heat and fold in the flour. Let it cool completely (overnight is best). When completely cool, add the baking powder. Turn onto a lightly floured board and knead until a smooth ball forms. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before rolling out and cutting out shapes (half a cm thick), or using it for making a gingerbread house (1 cm thick).
Shapes can be glazed with warm honey and decorated with dried fruit before putting in the oven – bake at 180 degrees (preheated oven)
If you are gluten-free – add one more egg to the recipe, and 1/2 tsp Xantham gum at the end with the baking powder.