Lebkuchen -- as much an art form as a dessert

``Picture cookies'' have long been part of the German Christmas tradition. For centuries, delicately carved wooden molds, into which bakers press Lebkuchen dough to make honey cookies, have told of the Christmas event. The earliest honey cookies were made by monks. Beekeepers and farmers brought their honey to nearby monasteries where the bakers kneaded together flour, eggs, and honey.

Until 400 years ago, honey was the only sweetener available. It gave Lebkuchen dough its unique honey flavor and acted as a leavener and preservative.

When trade routes opened, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, citron, and almonds were added to the plain, simple dough, making the cookies more like the ones made today.

Carved in monasteries, the earliest molds had Biblical themes. The cookies made with these beautiful illustrations served as visual aids, almost as church windows told a Biblical story at a time when only a few could afford printed Bibles and books.

Molded picture cookies, however, could be reproduced in quantity and with little expense.

As the Lebkuchen industry expanded beyond the monks' kitchens, so did the themes of the carvers making molds for bakers.

Elevated to an art form, molded cookies became very popular and were part of church festivals and holiday celebrations. They were given as gifts at weddings, baptisms, birthdays, and engagements. Probably the first New Year's greetings were picture cookies. The molds came to reflect the life and times of the people.

``The Adoration of the Magi'' dates back to the year 1650 when such molds were part of every Lebkuchener's equipment. Now rare, they are found only in museums and private collections. ``The Adoration of the Magi'' is part of such a collection of wooden cookie molds found in the Reichsstadt Museum in Rothenberg, West Germany. White Almond Honey Cookies (Weisse Lebkuchen)

Place a pound of almonds in cold water for several hours or overnight. Pull off the skins and dry with a towel. Cut almonds in three pieces. Lay in the middle of a paper on a baking sheet and dry in the oven until they become slightly browned.

Take another pound of fine dried sugar and the same amount of well-dried flour. Beat 8 small eggs into this and mix the dough well. When almonds are cool, sprinkle into the dough and also 1 1/2 loth* good cinnamon. Add 1/2 loth each of nutmeg, mace, and cardamom.

When everything is coarsely cut, spread this dough on oblaten* as large as you wish to have them. But don't spread it too thick. Lay it on paper and place it on a baking sheet and bake slowly. If the dough is runny, mix a little potato starch into it.

*1 loth equals 50 grams. Backoblaten are edible, waferlike rounds on which Lebkuchen are baked. They are available in German delicatessens and at mail-order and bakery companies.

Translated by Utta Hoffman, German Cultural Center, N.Y., from an old handwritten cookbook of 1691. Cookbook is in the German National Museum, Nuremberg, West Germany.

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