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Every Tuesday at 7:42 a.m. and 5:18 p.m., Tom Harte shares a few thoughts on food and shares recipes. A founder of “My Daddy’s Cheesecake,” a bakery/café in Cape Girardeau, a food columnist for The Southeast Missourian, and a cookbook author, he also blends his passion for food with his passion for classical music in his daily program, The Caffe Concerto.

A Harte Appetite: Lebkuchen - The Mercedes Benz of Spice Cookies

flickr user Marco Verch (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)

If, like me, you think of Christmas as a time for cookies, you ought to be grateful to the Germans because they invented that custom. German lebkuchen the Cadillac, or should I say the Mercedes Benz of spice cookies, was probably the first cookie traditionally associated with Christmas. Lebkuchen may also very well be the oldest form of cookie know to human kind.

The first recorded reference to it appears in an 11th century manuscript at a German monastery, and if that's not old enough for you, its origins can be traced back even further than that, all the way back to 2000 B.C. and the honey and spice cakes of ancient Mesopotamia, India and Egypt where the practice of creating decorative baked goods for special occasions began. These honey cakes, the pre-cursor of lebkuchen, whose major ingredient is honey, were prized by the ancients for their presumably magical healing powers.

According to Lebkuchen Schmidt, one of Germany's most famous lebkuchen makers, honey cakes changed into lebkuchen in the 13th century, moreover, since traditional lebkuchen recipes call for the cookies to be baked on rounds of thin rice paper which look and taste much like a communion wafer, it's likely that this metamorphosis took place in a monastery. Besides, most monasteries kept their own apiaries and honey was the sweetener of choice. So it seems reasonable to conclude that the monks, who were literate and could consequently read recipes, created the first lebkuchen. Thus, early lebkuchen recipes called for seven spices to symbolize the seven days of creation, and early lebkuchen molds featured biblical themes. Later, the molds became more secular featuring knights and nobleman, coats of arms and outdoor scenes.

By the 19th century elaborate lebkuchen hearts came into vogue. Today German children are still given them to hang around their necks and nibble whenever they get hungry.

Tom Harte is a retired faculty member from Southeast Missouri State University where he was an award-winning teacher, a nationally recognized debate coach, and chair of the department of Speech Communication and Theatre.
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