Germany at Christmas: marzipan, stollen, gingerbread go global

dresden1The world’s courts protect foods and beverages that are unique because of where they are produced.

True Parmesan cheese comes from Parma, Italy.

Champagne, a French product, is a specific type of sparkling wine.

Sweet onions from only a precise part of Georgia can be branded Vidalia.

In Germany, more than 100 items are deemed regionally distinct, and the list includes popular holiday treats: Lubeck Marzipan, Dresden Stollen and Nuremberg Gingerbread.

Sure, you’ll find marzipan, stollen and gingerbread sold elsewhere, but it’s an international trademark infringement to use the city name on a foreign brand. High standards and longevity of production are what make each product revered in Germany and beyond.

Marzipan started as a medicine, not a candy, and only a pharmacist could own or prescribe it. Then it was considered an aphrodisiac and also added to medications to help make them taste better.

Today’s Lubeck Marzipan products are treats that have a six- to nine-month shelf life. Germany’s best-known marzipan producer is the Niederegger company, in business since 1806. The seventh-generation, family-owned business uses almonds from the Mediterranean.

The recipe – “as many almonds as possible, as little sugar as necessary” – is a long-held secret. The third ingredient is similar to rosewater, but Niederegger doesn’t get more specific.

Open since 1999, in Niederegger’s original Lubeck factory, is the Marzipan Salon, a combination food museum and demonstration area. Admission is free, exhibits include life-sized marzipan carvings and history lessons about the product’s development.

The factory, at another location, is not open to visitors.

Marzipan became a German specialty in the 19th century, and Niederegger makes 50 tons of marzipan products daily. Work for Christmas begins in August.

The northern Germany company has 500 employees, plus 250 seasonal workers, and about 300 products that are exported to dozens of countries.

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Stollen baking for Dresden’s Christmas market began in the 15th century, and it is one of Saxony’s biggest exports. The buttery yeast bread contains specific percentages of rum, almonds, raisins and candied orange/lemon peel.

Visit Dresden during early December, and you might see hundreds of local pastry chefs escorting an enormous Christmas cake through Old Town.

This parade is a highlight of the annual Stollen Festival, which holds a world’s record for biggest stollen (9,259 pounds heavy and 15.5 feet long).

Every year, a giant cake is made from hundreds of handmade stollen that are joined together as one piece of art. After the parade, a 26-pound and 5-foot-long stollen knife is used to ceremoniously cut the bread, which is sold by the slice to thousands of spectators.

About 2 million loaves of Dresden Stollen, dusted with powdered sugar, are sold and shipped around the world every year. Stollen baking at 150 Dresden bakeries begins in late September. If kept covered in a cool place, it can last until Easter.

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Shops at the Handwerkerhof in Nuremberg, near the main train station, sell beautiful items of metal, clay, glass, fabric and more. All is produced in little workshops by craftsmen with decades of experience.

Also in this “craftsmen’s courtyard” is a baker who works behind an observation window, producing pan after pan of cakelike gingerbread, which the locals refer to as honey cookies or Lebkuchen.

One 5-inch square of the warm gingerbread, decorated with candied citrus and almonds, sells for about $4. Honey, flour, nuts and spices are the basic ingredients.

Gingerbread is a serious product in Germany, dating back to the work of monks in the 1300s, and sold widely in bakeries, especially during the Christmas season.

It also shows up in restaurants. Crumbled gingerbread is a popular gravy thickener for Sauerbraten (long-marinated and slow-roasted beef) in some parts of Germany. I also had a gingerbread strudel – cakelike, but wrapped in a thin layer of pastry dough and accompanied by a vanilla sauce and squirt of whipped cream.

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(Aachener Printen, by the way, is a type of gingerbread that is sweetened with the syrup of sugar beets. The texture is soft or crunchy, depending on the recipe, and it also is a regionally distinctive product in Germany’s North Rhine.)

The Germanic National Museum in Nuremberg professes to have the world’s oldest written recipe for gingerbread, from the 16th century. It requires finely ground nutmeats instead of flour, which makes the cookies both rich in taste and expensive to make.

Here is the recipe. This version and Nuremberg’s more commonly sold Lebkuchen (gingerbread or honey cookies, with flour) are both included in my book “Eat Smart in Germany: How to Decipher the Menu, Know the Market Foods and Embark on a Tasting Adventure” ($14.95, Ginkgo Press). Let me know if you have a hard time finding a copy.

Nurnberger Elisenlebkuchen
Makes about 100 cookies.

1 cup sugar
6 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup honey
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon coriander
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1/2 teaspoon mace
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
2 1/2 cups coarsely ground hazelnuts
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1 cup finely chopped candied orange peel
1 cup finely chopped candied lemon peel
1 tablespoon finely chopped candied ginger, optional
2 3/4-inch (70 mm) Oblaten disks

Optional glaze:
8 ounces dark chocolate, or
1 1/4 cups powdered sugar mixed with 3 tablespoons water

Optional toppings:
Whole almonds, peeled
Candied cherries

Place the sugar, eggs and vanilla in a bowl and beat until the sugar dissolves. Stir the honey gently into the mixture. Then add the spices, nuts and candied orange, lemon and (if desired) ginger peel.

Place a heaping teaspoon of dough on each Oblate, then spread to leave only a slight rim uncovered. Let sit for about 40 minutes in a dry, warm room.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Place dough-topped Oblaten on a parchment-covered baking sheet. Bake 12 to 15 minutes, until golden brown, but dough should not be baked completely through.

(The parchment paper and Oblaten – thin and edible disks that look like communion wafers – lessen dough spreading and ease the removal of the cookies from baking sheets.)

Cool on a rack. After gingerbread cools, it can be glazed and decorated. Dip into melted chocolate, or make a sugar glaze by mixing sugar and water, then heating to 225 degrees. The cookies also can be stored and eaten without a glaze.

After the cookies are baked, they must rest at least one week before they are ready to eat. Store them uncovered with a piece of parchment paper in a cookie tin. Place a small apple slice or apple peel on top of the paper, or place an orange in the tin.

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