A simple recipe for traditional Alsatian gingerbread men (lebkuchen), made with honey and spices, and decorated with icing.
May our enemies be consumed…
It struck me recently that many Purim foods encourage us to literally devour the wicked and villainous Haman – or a part of him at least. Some examples from around the world include:
- ‘Haman’s ears’ are cookies or deep fried pastries enjoyed around the world. They are known as Oznei haman in Israel, Hamansooren in Holland, Orecchi di Aman in Italy, or Orejas de Haman/Hojuelos de Haman in Sephardic communities.
- Moroccan Jewish communities bake a Purim bread called Ojos de Haman – “eyes of Haman”. It is formed in the shape of Haman’s head, with the eyes made of eggs. The eggs/eyes are plucked out to demonstrate his destruction.
- The Jewish community of Rhodes (and its descendants) eat huevos de Haman – a hard-boiled egg wrapped in strips of dough that represents Haman in a jail cell.
- Bulgarian jews eat Caveos di Aman – Haman’s Hair. It’s a noodle dish with olives and hard-boiled eggs.
- Jews from Greece and Turkey make nut-filled ‘cigar’ style pastries known as ‘Haman’s Fingers’.
- Alsatian and German jews make gingerbread depictions of Haman (and sometimes his wife Zeresh), known as Lebkuchen Hamohns.
Purim Gingerbread men (and women)
I love gingerbread! So having a reason to make it on Purim – it’s traditional! – was all the excuse I needed.
The Jewish community of Alsace is one of the oldest in Europe, so it makes sense that they would have had time to develop their own traditions, and absorbed local influences. Alsace is currently part of France but historically has also been part of neighbouring Germany – and back again. Thus local Jewish traditions are a blend of French and German with a generous pinch of Jewish seasoning!
While local non-Jewish bakers produced lebkuchen in all kinds of shapes, including hearts, stars, crescents and a variety of animals, Alsatian Jewish bakers saved their gingerbread men for Purim. They would decorate these gingerbread men and women to resemble the wicked Haman and his evil wife Zeresh. I can just imagine children taking great delight in biting off their heads!
Traditional Alsatian gingerbread
Alsatian gingerbread is not exactly the same as the crunchy gingerbread cookies that we are more used to. There are many cakes and pastries calling themselves gingerbread from across Europe and beyond, and they vary enormously by region.
Traditional Alsatian gingerbread dates back to the Middle Ages, and has a dense and slightly chewy texture. However, it is baked in cut-out cookie shapes like the more familiar ‘hard’ gingerbread or Scandinavian gingersnaps. A glaze can be applied while the gingerbread is hot, then it is iced with decorative patterns, mottos or other adornments when cold.
Alsatian gingerbread’s rich and distinctive taste comes from a range of spices, that includes cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon. Despite the name, it doesn’t always include ginger!
The lebkuchen dough is sweetened with a mixture of sugar and honey. Some recipes leave the sweetened dough to ferment for several days or even longer before baking! The recipe below simply allows the dough to rest for about an hour to develop its rich and spicy taste.
Easy gingerbread men recipe
This recipe for Alsatian gingerbread men is simple to make. The ingredients for these delicious gingerbread men (lebkuchen hamohns) are:
- baking powder
- spices – traditionally this would be ginger, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and anise, but for ease I have used ginger supplemented with mixed spice (see note on recipe card)
You will also need icing sugar and xanthan gum if you want to make icing to decorate the cookies. The xanthan gum is optional but it does improve the texture and ‘finish’ of the decorations.
You may notice that there is no oil, butter or other fat in this gingerbread recipe. This means that the cookies will keep for a few weeks in an airtight box or tin.
How to make lebkuchen gingerbread dough
The dough is quite straightforward to make. First the dry ingredients – flour, sugar, baking powder and spices – are mixed together. Then the honey is added and mixed in to give shaggy crumbs. Finally, a little water is gradually added and the mixture is worked and kneaded by hand to give a stiff dough.
The dough is left to rest for about an hour which gives the spicy flavours time to develop and also enables the flour particles to soak up the moisture from the honey and water.
Rolling out your gingerbread
These Alsatian gingerbread men should be quite thick, compared to standard gingerbread men. This enables them to retain a more chewy texture and not dry out to crisp crunchiness in the oven.
The dough needs to be rolled to about 1 cm (approx. ⅓ inch) thick. You can do this in several ways:
- By eye! The easiest but least accurate method.
- Place a 1 cm thick strip of wood on either side of the dough and roll until your rolling pin comes to rest on the strips.
- Use a rolling pin with adjustable thickness guides at the ends, that enables you to pre-select your thickness and roll evenly and accurately.
I prefer method 3 and have this rolling pin which I love! If you do a lot of rolling out it’s a brilliant gadget that ensures beautiful, even cookies and pastry every time. There are various different ones available that work in slightly different ways so take a look and choose one that you like!
Cutting out gingerbread men
Once you have rolled the dough evenly, you are ready to cut out your Purim gingerbread men!
Of course you will need a gingerbread man cutter, and possibly a gingerbread woman too if you want to make Haman’s wife, Zeresh. I find it is a good idea to lightly flour the cutters before using them, as this prevents the dough from sticking to them. You will get nice sharp edges and it’s easier to remove the offcuts.
Any dough offcuts can be re-rolled and made into more gingerbread people, or the shapes of your choice. Stars, hearts and animal shapes are traditional for this type of Alsatian gingerbread, although not necessarily for Purim!
I got 10 x 8 cm (approx. 3 inch) gingerbread people out of this quantity of dough, but the exact number will depend on the size/shape of your cutters. As you can see, they do puff up slightly when baked in the oven.
Decorating your Lebkuchen Hamohns
I used plain white icing to pipe features and clothing onto the gingerbread figures. Since they are suppose to represent the wicked Haman and his equally horrible wife Zeresh, I gave them grumpy grimacing faces! I also added the initials ‘H’ and ‘Z’ to some of them so it would be clear who they were supposed to be!
My icing skills are not the best but I think under the circumstances you don’t want beautiful, perfectly piped decorations. I was quite happy with how these turned out!
Consume your enemies!
I hope you have lots of Purim fun biting the heads off the wicked Haman and his awful wife!
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Lebkuchen Hamohns – Alsatian gingerbread men
- Mixing bowls
- Rolling Pin
- 8 cm (approx. 3 inch) gingerbread man/woman cutters
- Baking sheet
- Non-stick liner
- Piping bag with small writing tip
- 250 g plain (all-purpose) flour
- ½ tsp baking powder
- 100 g caster (superfine) sugar
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- 1 tsp mixed spice (see notes)
- 125 g runny honey
- 2-3 tbsp water
For the icing
- 75 g icing (powdered) sugar
- Pinch xanthan gum (optional)
- 2 tsp water
- Place the flour, baking powder, sugar, ginger and mixed spice into a mixing bowl and stir together.
- Add the honey and mix well. The dry mixture should start to form shaggy crumbs.
- Add about half the water and contine to mix. At this point you can discard the spoon and begin to work the mixture by hand. Gradully the crumbs will start to clump together as you squeeze and smoosh the mixture. If neccessary, add the water a few drops at a time and mix well in. You probably won't need all the water.
- Once the mixture has formed a crumbly ball, tip it out onto the counter and continue to smoosh and knead. After about 5 minutes of kneading you should have a ball of smooth, stiff dough. If the dough becomes too sticky, sprinkle a tbsp of flour onto the work surface and incorporate just enough of it to prevent stickiness.
- Wrap the ball of dough in plastic wrap and leave to rest at room temperature for about 1 hour.
- Line a large baking sheet with greaseproof paper or a non-stick liner. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F).
- On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough to 1 cm (approx. ⅓ inch) thickness. Use gingerbread man and gingerbread woman cutters to cut out cookies, and transfer them to the lined baking sheet.
- Bake the cookies for around 15 minutes until just starting to colour at the edges. Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely.
- Once the cookies are completely cold, they can be decorated with icing if desired. Mix the icing (powdered) sugar, xanthan gum (if using) and water to give a smooth, thick paste.
- Transfer the icing to a piping bag with a small writing tip attached. Pipe features, clothes etc. onto the cookies to decorate.
- Allow the icing to harden before serving. Enjoy!
More delicious ginger recipes
If you prefer thinner, ‘harder’ gingerbread, take a look at this recipe for gingerbread Chanukah gelt. Of course you can make it any shape you want!
You can browse all of my Purim recipes here.
I’m linking this recipe up with #CookBlogShare