Gesundheit, Martha!- Lebkuchen! -270 eggs, 198 3/4 cups of sugar, 201 1/4 sticks of Butter, and 249 1/2 cups of flour used so far- 17 recipes to go!

January 16, 2012

Martha's Lebkuchen

André's Lebkuchen

A tender, caky cookie filled with only a bajillion ingredients- that’s how I would describe Lebkuchen (Lehb-Coo-Chen).  A traditional Christmas cookie from Nuremberg, Lebkuchen is gifted among friends and family across the German nation as a long-standing holiday tradition. I’d never heard of them before, but I’m not German and , honestly, I don’t get out much.

This was one of those recipes in Martha’s book I had been dreading. The list of ingredients filled the page which made me think this was going to be another fussy Martha cookie. I had plenty of candied orange and lemon peel in my cupboard, having made a copious amount for the Marsala cookies in my last post.  It was also Christmastime. I didn’t really have an excuse to put off baking these any longer.

To begin, let’s take a look at this list of ingredients, shall we?:

  • all-purpose flour
  • baking powder
  • salt
  • ground cinnamon
  • ground ginger
  • ground mace
  • ground cloves
  • blanched whole almonds, toasted
  • blanched hazelnuts-toasted
  • candied orange peel
  • candied lemon peel
  • Medjool dates
  • almond paste
  • apricot jam
  • eggs
  • light-brown sugar
  • confectioners’ sugar
  •  whole milk

Mise en Place which is just a fancy French culinary term, literally translated to Putting in Place, was the longest step in baking this recipe. I had to blanche the whole nuts in order to remove their skins, and then they needed to be toasted. The spices had to laid out and the dry ingredients measured and set in place. Every inch of my counter space was covered in prep dishes. Once everything was prepared and laid out, the actual combining of ingredients was quite simple. Using a food processor, I pulsed all of the ingredients together into a thick paste-like consistency and then transferred the batter to an airtight bowl. I then placed the bowl in the fridge and let it stiffen up overnight.  To bake these cookies, I simply had to dig out the batter with an inch-and-a-half scooper and drop them onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet. I then placed a whole, toasted, blanched almond on top of each one and baked them until just browned around the edges. Once removed from the oven and placed on a wire cooling rack, I brushed them with a glaze of confectioner’s sugar and whole milk.

Were they worth all the hard work? Surprisingly, yes! These are absolutely delicious cookies that taste precisely like what a holiday cookie should taste like. Sweet and citrusy with the distinct flavors of almond and winter spices. These cookies have a smoother taste than their German cousin, gingerbread. The flavors are more bright and less smokey. They’re beautiful, too. The glaze makes them shimmer with promises of inviting yumminess. The sweetness of the cookies wasn’t overpowering, thoug, since they’re only sweetened by dates, apricot jam, and a touch of light-brown sugar.

I baked these for my partner, Dan to gift to his co-workers where they were quickly and appreciatively consumed. I also reserved a dozen to serve at our holiday party where folks enjoyed them thoroughly.

Would I bake them again? Probably. They are an impressive cookie, and once all the ingredients are procured and combined, all one needs to do is add heat. Plus, they yield quite a lot, perfect for gifting to friends and family. So get all crazy-German next Christmas and bake up a big, bad batch of Lebkuchen, the delicious cookie with the funny name.

Do not assume that I am what I was; for God knows, I have turned my back on my former self, and I will do the same to those who were my companions. 

Prince Henry- Henry IV pt. 2 – Act V sc. 5- William Shakespeare

This quote is from one of the final scenes in the second part of Shakespeare’s history play, Henry IV. It is spoken by the young Henry V as he leaves to assume the throne after his father’s death. Henry had essentially been reared by a group of morally ambiguous hedonists, led by the corpulent clown, Falstaff. Young Prince Henry (Hal) had lived out his youth selfishly and without consequence among thieves and scheisters when, suddenly, the people needed him to lead with wisdom and maturity far beyond his years. It was time for him to become a man and accept who he was meant to be. He turns to the crowd, fully aware that his closest friends, Falstaff included, are in attendance. He delivers this address and banishes those who had always been closest to him , sending them off with enough money so they don’t fall into the evils that poverty, so often, brings. He tells them that when, or if, they choose to lead a more virtuous life, they will be welcomed in his court. Falstaff, of course, never does redeem himself. He goes off to the hamlet of Windsor where he engages the merry wives in comedy, later dying alone and repentant in Henry V.  

I just spent the weekend in Indianapolis where I lived ten years ago. I was a young Hal there and many of my Falstaffs still reside in the city. I’ve written about the events that led me to Indianapolis in the past, but to briefly recap, I had spent the Summer of 2001 in Maine and Montréal teaching music to over-privileged children. I worked with many Polish, Czech and Slovak counselors, hired by the organization because they were hard workers, racially non-threatening, and cheap. At the end of the Summer I returned to New York City where I was about to sign a new lease on a large apartment in Harlem. About twenty-five of my new Eastern-European friends were in the city as well, enjoying sight-seeing and discount shopping along Canal Street before returning to their distant homelands. I had found two cheap hotel rooms for them to stay in across from the World Trade Center. I planned on signing my lease and then leaving to visit Eastern Europe  for a month spent exploring Prague and Bratislava. Then two planes, as part of a terrible terrorist plot, slammed into the Trade Center. Twenty-five Eastern Europeans were stuck in my Harlem apartment with no way to get home. We made the best of it.  Feeling less than confident about remaining in New York City after the attack, I decided, once the last of the Europeans was able to get a flight home, to use the funds I’d reserved for Europe to join my sister and her husband in their new home in Indianapolis.

I was a stranger in a strange land but went to work quickly. Using my newly acquired skills in email and the internet, a technology that was still relevantly new in late 2001, I was able to locate the names of key contacts in the local professional theatre circuit in Indianapolis and scheduled coffee chats on top of coffee chats.  Within a month, I was able to buy a car, lease an apartment, and audition for every major theatre company in Indianapolis. I was cast by two of the largest producing companies in the area. One in a production of Dirty Blonde,  a strange three-person play about the life of three people: Mae West, a middle-aged introverted female, and a heterosexual closeted cross-dresser. Guess which character I played?  I was also miscast in the title role of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (I thought that at 33, I was far too young) at the Indiana Repertory Theatre and I was appointed to the Indiana Arts Council’s official roster of resident artists, conducting frequent workshops in acting, voice work, Shakespeare, and clowning at local schools, community centers, jails, and detention centers.

Things were going well. People knew me. They knew my work. They liked what they saw. In fact, after only living in Indy for a little over a month, I was able to have an apartment-warming party with over fifty people in attendance. I had charmed the pants off the theatre and arts community of Indianapolis and was perfectly poised to  make a real life for myself there.  I even made an announcement to form my very own theatre company called, The Project e.t.c. (experimental theatre company), complete with a press release and a formal reading of the first script to be produced. I even received a $5,000 grant from the arts council to start work while the incorporation and 501c3 application for not-for-profit status was under review. Everyone wanted me to be that guy, the one who would swoop in with unbounded energy and intellect and inject the local culture with an innovative vision and exciting new things to see and enjoy.

There was a problem, though.

I wasn’t being honest with myself. I didn’t want to live in Indianapolis. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to do theatre anymore. On top of that, I wasn’t feeling great. I was falling into a deep, dark depression. I was drinking too much. I was taking any drug I was offered. I was smoking weed from the moment I woke up till I went to bed. I was putting on weight. I was promiscuous. I was selfish. I was often arrogant and boisterous. Many people, who only a month earlier, I’d charmed the pants off, began to avoid me. This made me start to despise Indy. In drug-fueled moments of frustration, I sent  mass emails railing against the community and their lack of vision and opportunity. I began to burn bridges… and then I was diagnosed with testicular cancer and within a week I was in surgery. Only a few friends stuck around to check on me. Many didn’t know or care I was ill. Rightfully so. I had, after all, bitten many hands that fed me support.

I, for unconscious reasons, became my own saboteur.

It was the deepest part of Winter. The snows were heavy. My sister was newly pregnant and on the other side of town. I kept my distance so as not to upset her in her delicate state. The roads were treacherous and I was recovering from surgery. I cocooned myself in my apartment, wearing unwashed pajamas and feeling sorry for myself. I fell into an even darker depression. More depressed than I’d ever been. I felt ashamed and lonely. Something needed to change. I had to do something to save myself.  I stopped self-medicating and enrolled, under my doctor’s suggestion, in group day-therapy.  Everyday from early-morning till early-evening, I met with a team of therapists, psychiatrists and fellow depressed souls who chatted in manic states about being sad and wanting to die.

Within just a few months, I’d gone from being on top of the world, celebrated by the local arts community and press, to a fetal mass of suicidal, self-pitious jelly. Without hope of every recovering and a couple of feeble suicide attempts, I committed myself to the State mental hospital where after a long and humiliating admissions process which included a strip and body cavity search, I was given a semi-private room with a morbidly obese gentleman who was kept strapped to his bed and wheeled out every morning at five for electro-shock therapy.

I realized, locked in that room, with regular visits from an orderly who’d tap on the window, indicating that I show my wrists and exhibit signs of coherence, I’d hit rock bottom. A few days later, I met with my social worker who sent me to chat with the psychiatrist. I told the nice lady in the white coat that I didn’t need to be there. I was no longer a threat to myself. I explained the story of Prince Henry and Falstaff’s merry band of misfits. I told her how I’d grown up in an abusive and secretive household. I told her of the events that led me to relocating to Indy. I told her that I never allowed myself to stop, reflect and reassemble myself. I told her I was broken into pieces, part Prince, part Falstaff, part adult, part child. I told her  it was time for me to start banishing some of those pieces and assume the throne. She smiled and agreed, that while she’d not heard a patient describe their situation in those terms, she thought I was on the right track. She signed my release form and sent me off with a pat on the back and a piece of advice- “You are remarkable,” she said. “Do remarkable things.”

I only stayed in Indianapolis for a few more months after that, taking a job as a loan processor for a mortgage company on the north side of town in an effort to make enough money to move on to my next adventure.

Shame kept me from contacting many of the friends I’d made in Indianapolis. I felt I’d let a lot of people down. Everyone had high hopes for me and what I’d do for the arts community there, and I just left without a word like a rude and reckless guest.

What they didn’t understand was I had to banish myself. I had to go somewhere to become who I was meant to be.

Just this weekend, I saw three of the former friends who believed and supported me, and who I ultimately disappointed. None of them remember me leaving a negative impression. They said they were shocked that I just suddenly disappeared without a word. I explained what had happened and we picked up exactly where we left off.

It felt good. It felt like closure on the darkest, saddest, most shameful chapter of my life.

I was banished.

I restored my virtue.

I returned not as who I was, but something better…

…and they happily welcomed me, once again, to their court.


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