In Germany, and many other European countries, December the 6th is the day where St Nikolaus is celebrated. A bishop like bearded figure, a forerunner to Santa Claus, his exact role varies from country to country, and region to region. In Germany, children put out their cleaned and polished shoes, which will be filled with sweets, fruits and little presents if they’ve been good.
One of my Grandmas is German, and every year during our childhood we would celebrate Nikolaus day. Christmas would still be the main event, and this is where we’d get our Christmas presents, but we’d get a little something from Nikolaus too. Whenever I see a chocolate Father Christmas, I’m reminded of the chocolate Nikolaus which would appear on the morning of the 6th.
A few years ago I was in Salzburg, Austria for the Christmas Markets and St Nikolaus day. I knew Salzburg would capture my heart, long before I was booked to go. The birth place of Mozart, and the home of The Sound of Music, it’s a place firmly entrenched in my heart from hours and hours watching The Sound of Music over and over again. To see the abbey, Stift Nonnberg, to wander around the Mirabellgarten be in the places where the Von Trapp children danced and sang was incredible.
The town is gorgeous, one of those old Bavarian style towns, where secrets await down narrow passageways and cobbled streets. The Hohensalzburg Fortress sits high up on a rocky outcrop, it’s vast, steep, imposing walls overlooking the town. The river meanders through the valley. Horse drawn carriage rides lead you along the banks, through stone archways and into the squares of the old town as you sit, snuggled up in the back, hands tucked in the blankets to keep the cosy against the crisp winter air.
Recognize these steps? Do re me fa so la ti do ti do!
The markets are simply magical, no other word will do. Cold and snowy, lit by fairy lights and towering Christmas trees. You can’t help but feel festive wandering around the wooden chalet stalls, each selling hand crafted decorations, hundreds of glass baubles hanging from the awnings, carved wooden nativity scenes, lit from behind by candle light.
You wrap your freezing fingers around piping hot mugs of gluhwein, finding it impossibly hard to choose between bratwurst in crust bread, frikadellen and sauerkraut rolls or steaming bowls of goulash. On St Nikolaus eve we met the man himself, wandering through the markets. Close behind was his rather more sinister companion, the horned and hairy Krampus!
Lebkuchen are spiced, gingerbread like cookies that you’ll find all across the Christmas markets. They always remind me of Christmas time at Grandma’s, where a bag would always be sitting around waiting to be nibbled on. These aresn’t quite like the ones I remember. They’re a little bit darker and stronger. The glaze hasn’t quite turned into the crisp sugar shell either. Lebkuchen come in many different tastes and textures though, and these ones are still deliciously christmassy. As with many Christmas bakes, you need to be a little organized when you’re making them. The dough needs to sit over night in the fridge, to allow the flavours to develop and stop it being unmanageably sticky to roll out. Once baked, if you’ve got the will power, leave them a few days to mellow and become wonderfully chewy and soft. A sealed Tupperware with a slice of apple, or segment of orange, helps the process along.
For the Lebkuchken
120ml black treacle
165g dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Zest of one lemon
345g plain flour
1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
50g diced candied peel
40g finely chopped hazelnuts
For the glaze
200g white sugar
30g icing sugar
Heat the Treacle and honey together in a medium saucepan until just boiling. Add the brown sugar, lemon juice and lemon zest. Put to one side. Mix together your flour, bicarbonate of soda, cinnamon, cloves, all spice and nutmeg in a large bowl. Pour in your treacle mixture and mix until well combined. Stir in the peel and the hazelnut.
Cover and rest in the fridge overnight.
Preheat your oven to 175C/350F.
Grease a baking tray, or line with greaseproof paper.
Try to keep your dough in the fridge as you work, rolling out only the amount you are able to bake at any one time. This will help make the dough easier to roll; it can be very sticky and difficult to work with when it is warm.
Roll a small amount onto a lightly floured work surface, to a thickness of about 1/4 inch. Cut into shapes and arrange on your baking tray, keeping the shapes about 1 inch apart as they will spread. Alternatively, form the dough into balls with your hands, and squash them down into disks about 1/4 thick.
Bake for about 10 – 12 minutes, or until firm to the touch.
You will need to brush the cookies with the icing glaze while they are still warm, so make it while they are in the oven.
To make the glaze, stir together the caster sugar and water in a small pan. Heat to 234 and 240 degrees F (112 to 116 degrees C). If, like me, you don’t have sugar thermometer, heat it until it forms a syrup. It’s ready when a small amount dropped in cold water forms a ball. Take it off the heat and stir in the icing sugar. If the sugar starts to form crystals again and go gritty as you work, heat the syrup up a little, and add a little more water until the crystals dissolve again. Brush over the top of the Lebkuchen while they are still warm.
Store in a sealed container with a segment of orange, or a slice of apple for a few days to mellow to a soft texture.