Christmas Traditions Past and Present – Lebkuchen!

Christmas is such a special time. it is my favorite holiday — a time of full of wonder and love on many levels. Family traditions are the cozy essence of Christmas for many people, and activities in the kitchen are especially beloved.

Merry Christmas

We’re not thinking about Christmas too much in this photo from Crested Butte, Colorado, but what fun it has been to relive an old Christmas tradition this year.

I love Christmas cooking. However, having chosen to live unusual lifestyles most of my life — living on a sailboat in Boston Harbor in the 1990s, living in our office when my former husband I and founded and ran an IT consulting firm, and then cruising around North America via RV and sailboat for 13 years, I haven’t had the kind of kitchen that was conducive to Christmas fun.

One of my favorite childhood Christmas memories, however, is of baking and eating a special kind of German Christmas cookie called Lebkuchen from a recipe that had been in my family since my ancestors lived in Germany in the early 1800s.

It is a honey-based cookie that tastes like no other, and I remember fondly dipping the cookies in milk and later in dipping them in coffee all day long on Christmas Day and for many days afterwards.

My great-grandmother, Emily Riesenberg, learned the recipe (along with many other recipes) from her immigrant mother growing up in a log cabin in Wisconsin, and she became very skilled in the kitchen.

Emily Riesenberg

My great-grandmother and her son Sidney Riesenberg (my great-uncle) in New York’s Yonkers Statesman, June 1, 1928

Although I was blessed with her name, her outstanding culinary skills didn’t make it across the generation gap to me!

She raised four children, one of whom was my great-uncle, Sidney Riesenberg, that I wrote about when we saw the mules at the Grand Canyon last June. He became a well known illustrator in New York. His older brother, Felix Riesenberg, became a well known explorer, tall ship captain and bestselling author.

When Emily had finished raising her family around the turn of the last century, she began submitting her recipes to newspapers and magazines. She was 50 at the time — in 1906 — and as she later told an interviewer with a New York newspaper, “Now it was time for my career!”

Her recipes were published in many publications, including Ladies Home Journal, and she had a weekly column in a Chicago newspaper. Her column, recipes and tips were very popular, and in 1931, at age 76, she published a cookbook called “Easy Baking” that included all her favorite baking recipes.

Renogy 200 watt solar panel

When I was a child, my mother had a cherished copy of this cookbook. It was well worn and stained from being used every year for Christmas baking. My mother would carefully open the book to the Lebkuchen recipe some time in early December and cover the open book with Saran Wrap to prevent us from making any new stains on those precious pages!

A few years ago, my sister found some copies of the cookbook and gave one to me. It had a treasured home in our RV and then in our house. However, each Christmas came and went without me trying my hand at making Lebkuchen.

Easy Baking cookbook by Emily Riesenberg

“Easy Baking” by my namesake!

This year, however, I dove in with gusto. It is an interesting recipe that calls for boiling honey and butter for 5 minutes over a “low fire.” This becomes a very frothy thing! “Soda” is added to water in another step and then the whole thing becomes an extremely sticky batter that has to remain in a covered bowl for 4 days as it “ripens”

Lebkuchen dough ripening for 4 days

The dough has to “ripen” for 4 days. It’s impossible not to peek!

I loved the mystery of all these steps as a child. As I made my way through the recipe this year, I wondered what my great-grandmother would think if she saw me in my kitchen today. It was over 50 years ago that I made these cookies with my mother. 100 years before that, my great-grandmother made these cookies with her mother in a log cabin!

The recipe calls for “citron” or candied citrus fruit peels, and I remember being fascinated by this odd, sticky food that had to be diced very finely. It is a key ingredient in these cookies. Unfortunately, there was none to be found in any of the stores within a half hour drive of our house and none at a reasonable price online either. I imagine that all the true Christmas bakers out there who plan ahead bought it all up before I even got the idea to make these cookies!

I’m sure my great-grandmother would have been quite distressed that I wouldn’t be including any citron in these cookies, but I learned my lesson to start thinking and planning ahead at Thanksgiving. Next time!

After four days of ripening, the dough is extremely dense and requires a huge amount of manipulation to get it to a point where you can roll it out. This was a job my mother always did, and as I wrestled with the dough this afternoon, I remembered watching her putting her whole body weight into getting that dough to comply. I had to do that too!

I didn’t have a rolling pin, but I was able to order one with my Instacart grocery order a few days ago. What would my great-grandmother have thought about my fast flying fingers typing on a keypad so a week’s worth of groceries plus a rolling pin would be delivered at my house the next day?!

Lebkuchen dough ready to be rolled out

The dough is a beast to deal with at first – dense and totally unpliable!

When I was little, we had a huge paper bag full of cookie cutters in all kinds of shapes. There were santas, stars, snowmen and other things. My great-uncle’s favorite cookie cutter was the pig, so we always used that one a lot so there would be plenty of cookies for him.

I don’t have any cookie cutters in my very simple kitchen, but I found that the rim of a mason jar top worked just fine. I could feel my great-grandmother shaking her head at my unpreparedness, but I knew she was smiling too because I was trying, and I had her book open with plastic wrap protecting the pages from flying flour.

Using a mason jar cap to cut Lebkuchen cookies

No cookie cutters? A Mason Jar cap rim did the job very well! I’ll get the ones below next year!

Christmas Cookie Cutters

Back in the early 1900s, ovens didn’t have thermometers, so the Lebkuchen baking instructions were to use a “very moderate” oven (as opposed to a “fast oven” or “slow oven” that were required for her other recipes). No time was given for when they’d be done either — just test them with a toothpick!

I remember my mother being perplexed about what temperature “very moderate” might be and how long to leave the cookies in the oven. And so it was for me today. Would that be 325 degrees or perhaps 350? And for how long? 10 minutes? 20 minutes? 30??

I found other Lebkuchen recipes online (what would my great-grandmother have thought of that?), and the recipes were totally different than this one. None of them let the dough ripen for 4 magical days (and oh yes, we kids often snuck lumps of uncooked dough to snack on secretly when no one was looking — and then we’d be reprimanded when the dough had shrunk by the time baking day rolled around!). The other Lebkuchen recipes online used temperatures anywhere from 300 to 400 degrees, so that didn’t help much!

When I was a little girl, the cookies always got baked somehow. I remember fondly, however, that we always had a batch or two that was quite dark or even burnt on the bottom and a few batches that were too light. Eventually, we’d get our rhythm and they’d all turn out perfectly.

Baking Lebkuchen Christmas cookies

Oh, for my great-grandmother’s skill in the kitchen!

We always made a double batch so we’d have plenty to give away. This involved sifting over 14 cups of flour! On baking day, the cookie sheets went in and out of the oven in a magical, sweet smelling dance all afternoon.

I got a soul enriching whiff of all those memories this afternoon as I listened to Christmas carols and cut little mason jar cap circles out of the dough. I’d made just a half batch of dough, and the smell and taste were right on. They turned out a little hard, however. In fact, they are very very hard! We’ll have to dip them in milk or coffee and tea for a long time!

But that’s part of the fun, and it is exactly how we always dealt with the dark and burnt ones way back when.

German Christmas Lebkuchen cookies

My humble first try. Now I have lots of notes for next year!

My great-grandmother’s recipe (and all the online Lebkuchen recipes) call for icing the cookies, but in our house they never made it that far…eager hands pulled them out of the cookie jar too fast and they disappeared into happy bellies! And so it is at our house this year.

Reese Goosebox

Here is the recipe:

Lebkuchen Recipe by Emily Riesenberg in her cookbook Easy Baking

The ingredient list for making Lebkuchen

Lebkuchen recipe by Emily Risenberg in her cookbook Easy Baking-2

Instructions. Quite different than modern recipe instructions!

For comparison, here is the recipe given by King Arthur Flour. They recommend refrigerating the dough for a day and baking at 350 for 20 to 22 minutes. A commenter suggested wrapping the dough in plastic wrap before refrigerating to keep it moist.

Also, here is the introduction to Emily Riesenberg’s cookbook — an essay by her son, Felix Riesenberg, about the importance of baking homemade bread for the health and happiness of your children!

The importance of baking bread for your children from the cookbook Easy Baking by Emily Riesenberg_

Written by her son, Felix, this little intro speaks volumes about a world of simpler and more wholesome times in America in the 1800s.

Here’s a little about my great-grandmother from the front of the cookbook:

About the author of Easy Baking Emily Riesenberg

About my great-grandmother, Emily Riesenberg

Also, here are the opening paragraphs of the first chapter: key tips every “up to date cook” needs to know about flour!

What Every Cook Should Know introduction to Easy Baking cookbook by Emily Riesenberg

What a different and special world my great-grandmother lived in!

Note added Christmas morning:

Mark and I surprised each other when we opened our gifts and saw we’d gotten each other the same thing! A neighbor who has an artisan woodworking shop invited all the neighbors to come check out his work and buy gifts, and we both snuck out with a gift for the other of a boy (or girl) with a dog. What a sweet coincidence!

Boy and girl with dog made by Rust Art

Mark and I gave each other almost identical gifts this year…with Buddy close to our hearts!

I hope you have a wonderful Christmas and that you take a moment to reminisce about your fondest traditions, even if they aren’t a part of your festivities now. We’d love to hear your stories too!

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16 thoughts on “Christmas Traditions Past and Present – Lebkuchen!

  1. Thanks for sharing such a heartwarming Christmas story, Emily. I’m sure your great-grandmother would be proud of your efforts – and fascinated by your blog through which you documented them. I remember making deep-fried Italian honey cakes with my mom and aunts when I was young. It was always a full day of work that was filled with family camaraderie and resulted in a tasty treat the entire family loved. Family traditions that become beloved memories are such a special blessing. Merry Christmas to you, Mark and Buddy! I trust that all three of you enjoyed your Lebkuchen immensely!

    • What a wonderful memory, Mary. Thank you for sharing your story. There’s something so special about family members gathering in the kitchen over a big cooking project, especially when there’s multiple generations and a tie to the family’s history. Those Italian honey cakes must have been delicious too! Weren’t we fortunate as children to have experienced those things?! Have a beautiful Christmas day!!

  2. Wow, what a great story to start Christmas Day, 2023! I know that name, Emily Riesenberg from somewhere….but where?! Did you ever have the Irish hard sauce? I think it went on some brown Irish bread, but the hard sauce was better by itself…lots of butter. Mmmm. I wonder if Emily’s book has that receipe!

    • Good morning, Pete! I thought of you as I wrote this since she’s your great-grandmother too. I don’t recall the Irish hard sauce, although it must be absolutely delicious. I’ve had hard sauce before, and I remember slathering it on so thickly that whatever was underneath just about disappeared. Enjoy this beautiful day with your family!!

  3. How wonderful that you have these fascinating memories! Thank you for sharing! Sending you & Mark warm Christmas hugs & love! And, a healthy & Happy 2024 New Year!

  4. I started this quiet, rainy morning at the lake by listening to a the story of the birth of Christ found in the Gospel of Luke. Rhonda and I will spend this Christmas Day in quiet celebration with only our furry friends as company. It is a welcomed reprieve from all of the business of building and making a home of our new place. Later in the week our son and his family will join us and help welcome the new year. We look forward that!
    Back to this morning. As I sat with my coffee, and after enjoying Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus, I started texting and emailing close friends and family to wish them Merry. I then settled in to my routine of checking the new emails. I ran into the one announcing your “Merry Christmas” post and delighted in clicking the link. It took me to the wonderful story of your memories of your great grandmother and those wonderful cookies! I was blessed with a family of wonderful cooks and I married into another family that is also full of cooking and gathering traditions, especially around the holidays. My great grandmother left us a legacy of a breakfast sweet roll called “Stickies”. They are unlike anything I have ever had anywhere else and my family all loves them. My mom made sure the tradition of Stickies was alive and well when she was with us, and now my wife and my son’s wife also make them. They were a favorite of my dad’s!
    As I read your story, I could smell the Stickies cooking! I really enjoyed the account you gave and seeing the cookbook and the passages from your great grandmother. How special it is! Notice that the cookbook kind of looks like a bible! Her cooking bible!
    Merry Christmas to you , Mark, and Buddy!

    • Stickies! What great memories, Jeff! And how wonderful that your Stickies have been passed down through your family from your great-grandmother to your grandchildren, and surely will live on beyond that. You have certainly had a lovely Christmas morning so far, full of love and special connections.

      I hope Sweetie and Gracie are enjoying the morning as much as Buddy is. He sat very patiently in front of his stocking, staring at it longingly for quite some time as we made tea and put our Lebkuchen cookies on plates. When Mark finally pulled out a (usually forbidden) Pupperoni from the stocking, Buddy went wild. That was followed by a few beef jerky pieces further down in the stocking. What a happy dog — he is in 7th heaven now, lying in front of the fireplace and guarding his stocking which has many more treats in it!

      My great-grandmother’s cookbook does look like a bible, and she surely poured her heart and soul into creating it.

      I hope your day continues to be a special one. Hugs to you and Rhonda and behind-the-ears scratchs for Sweetie and Gracie.

  5. What a charming family story/recollection, Emily – does my heart good to know how much you appreciate your childhood.

    It was Felix Riesenberg who wrote the “Mother’s bread” introduction to EASY BAKING.

    Several friends in Paris follow RLT, but I will forward a “reminder” – so, in the holiday rush, they don’t miss this one.

    Love, Mom

    • Thanks for letting me know that little tidbit about the beautiful “Mother’s Bread” forward to Emily’s cookbook. Felix would have known just how much that bread meant to a child since he was one of the lucky four who came home from school to her breads fresh out of the oven. What a joy that must have been, for them and for her as well. I also really appreciate that you’ve shared my blog with your French friends. Several of them correspond with me every so often. Merry Christmas Parisian style!

  6. I loved this post so much! Thank you for sharing all these things from your great-grandmother. I loved reading her words; she was clearly very intelligent and well-educated. I read all your posts, but this one especially charmed me, and I had to say thank you. And that is so sweet that y’all picked out the same gift for each other. Merry Christmas to all three of you!

    • I’m so glad this post touched you, Cindy. My great-grandmother must have been a very special person, raising two talented boys who went on to prominent careers, a girl who followed in her footsteps as a loving homemaker and a fourth adventurous girl (my grandmother) who got a Master’s at Columbia University and traveled abroad alone, uncommon things for a woman of her time. Among her own siblings, two were born in Germany and two were born in America. Their father read aloud the most recent Charles Dickens novel to all of them each evening — translated into German! He educated them all at home, and astonishingly for her writing skills, my great-grandmother’s formal education at a schoolhouse ended in sixth grade. Thank you very much for appreciating this post and Merry Christmas to you too!

  7. Beautifully written and illustrated – thank you so much for sharing these wonderful memories! They made me all warm and fuzzy inside!

  8. Special treat to re-read this post…many weeks later. Such an utterly charming reminiscence !!!! So proud to be part of this ancestry. Corresponding with Cousin George Hoehne, great-grandson of one of Emily Schorb’s sisters. Looking forward to exchanging our pioneer heritage with him. Love, Mom


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