Spoonfuls of Germany

German Gingerbread meets English Trifle

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It must be the “Waste not, want not” mantra instilled in me by my grandmother that makes me relish when I am able to turn a cooking mishap into a tasty dish. Last week I over-baked the German gingerbread and ended up with cookies that were still tasty but rock-hard. Nothing that a good old trifle could not soften, I thought, and into a trifle with pears and brandy custard they went.

Making real German gingerbread is a lengthy process, even today. One of the standard German cookbooks, the Bayerisches Kochbuch, after more than 70 years now in its 56th edition, tells you to let the dough rest for two to four weeks so the flavors blend.

Depending on the ingredients, and the region, German gingerbread is called Pfefferkuchen, Honigkuchen, Lebkuchen or Gewürzkuchen. Many recipes use a 9-spice gingerbread mix called Neunerlei that you can easily mix yourself. The other two key ingredients in traditional German gingerbread are potash and hartshorn salt, aka baker’s ammonia or ammonium carbonate. Both are leavening agents but unlike baking powder and baking soda, they make the dough spread horizontally instead of rising it. Nowadays many recipes use baking powder or baking soda, which I did.

By the way, I just learned the trick that hard gingerbread cookies can be softened by storing them in an airtight tin can with a few slices of apple. It would not occur to me to cut up a perfectly edible apple for that purpose so I used apple peels and cores from making applesauce. It worked perfectly. Waste not, want not, right?

German Gingerbread Cookies (Honigkuchen)

9-spice mix:

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

½ teaspoon ground allspice

½ teaspoon ground ginger

¼ teaspoon ground mace

½ teaspoon ground coriander

½ teaspoon ground anise

½ teaspoon ground cardamom

¼ teaspoon ground star anise


1½ cups honey

1/3 cup water

2¾ cups all-purpose flour

2 cups (9 ounces) rye flour

½ teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

1. Heat the honey in a small saucepan. Add the water and stir to combine. Let cool.

2. In a large bowl, mix the flours, baking powder, baking soda and spice mix. Gradually add the honey and knead well to a smooth dough. Store in an airtight container at least overnight, preferably for a couple of days, in a cool place.

3. Divide the dough into several small portions. Roll each portion on a lightly floured surface no thicker than ¼ inch. Cut the dough with cookie cutters of your choice and place the cookies 1 in apart on a baking sheet lined with a baking mat or parchment paper. User up all the dough by kneading and re-rolling the scraps. If the dough becomes to dry, moisten your hands lightly before kneading.

4. Bake in the preheated oven at 400 degrees F for 10 to 12 minutes. The cookies should not brown. Cool on wire racks, then store in airtight tin cans.

Makes about 100 cookies

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Gingerbread Trifle with Pears and Brandy Custard

I made this trifle twice around Christmastime, in 2012 and 2014. The second time I skipped the brandy in the custard and sprinkled the gingerbread with port instead. I cannot decide which one I like better and I am listing both variations below.

You can substitute the gingerbread cookies with any plain good-quality gingerbread. This trifle is also a great way of using up gingerbread from a gingerbread house (after removing the icing). The custard recipe is deliberately adapted from Martha Stewart’s Cognac Custard.

5 egg yolks

½ cup (100 g) sugar

3 tablespoons cornstarch

1 2/3 cups (400 ml) milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 tablespoons brandy (optional; use only if making the brandy custard variation)

24 to 30 gingerbread cookies (9 ounces/250 g)

1/2 cup (100 ml) port or other red dessert wine (optional; do not use when making the brandy custard variation)

2 cups canned pear chunks (12 ounces/350 g), including ¾ cups (180 ml) of the pear juice

2 tablespoons pumpkin butter (optional; use only if making the brandy custard variation)

½ cup (120 ml) heavy cream

1 tablespoon superfine sugar

Additional gingerbread cookies or unsweetened cocoa mixed with a pinch of cinnamon

Gingerbread Trifle

1. Beat the egg yolks with the sugar and cornstarch until smooth. Bring the milk to a boil in a saucepan. Add the egg mixture and cook over low to medium heat, beating vigorously with a wire whisk, until the custard thickens. Remove from the head and stir in the vanilla extract and the brandy if using. Let cool, stirring once in a while to prevent a skin from forming.

2 Drain the pears. If making the brandy custard variation, heat the pear juice and add the pumpkin butter. Stir until dissolved. Remove from the heat and let cool. If making the variation with port, just set aside the pear juice.

3. To assemble, line the bottom of a glass bowl with gingerbread cookies. Drizzle with half of the port if using. Place half of the pear chunks on top. Drizzle with half of the pear liquid. Spread half of the custard on top. Repeat the layering once or twice depending on the size of your bowl, ending with custard.

4. Whip the cream with the superfine sugar until stiff. Spread the cream on top of the custard, or fill into a pastry bag and make a decorative pattern. Decorate with gingerbread cookies or dust with cocoa and cinnamon. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours before serving.

Makes 8 servings




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