German food, I wrote in the introduction to my German cookbook 15 years ago and keep repeating, is the Cinderella of world cuisines – overshadowed by her pretty sisters, looked down upon and underrated. But come along Christmas season, it’s payback time. Even people who usually turn up their nose at German food are charmed by German Christmas traditions. “German” Christmas markets spring up everywhere in the United States, and I have not seen anyone who does not delight in a plate of Christmas stollen, lebkuchen and other German Christmas goodies.
For The Year of German-American Friendship, I want to introduce you to Ryan Berley of Shane Confectionery, and Sandy Lee of Leckerlee, two American entrepreneurs who are following in the footsteps of German gingerbread tradition, each in their own, special way. What comes out of their ovens in New York City and Philadelphia is unlike the other, but each equally top-notch and delicious.
Gingerbread dipped in American history
When Smithsonian Magazine features a store, like it did with Shane Confectionery, you know it’s an American landmark. Ryan Berley and his brother, Eric, bought Shane’s, the oldest continuously operated candy shop in America, in 2010 and lovingly restored it. Here, in the heart of Philadelphia’s Old City, they produce artisan and historic candy using fresh and locally sourced ingredients, pieces of art that are almost too beautiful to eat. And, Shane Confectionery makes a distinctive gingerbread that is literally a fascinating bite of American history: Christopher Ludwick’s gingerbread.Shane Confectionery is located a few steps away from the former Letitia Court, which was named after William Penn’s daughter who lived there upon her arrival from England. Christopher Ludwick (1720-1801) a German immigrant from the town of Giessen who became the first gingerbread baker in Philadelphia, had his bakeshop here, neighboring Benjamin Jackson’s shop, the first chocolate mill in Pennsylvania.
Ludwick was more than a baker with a thriving business. He was also an advocate for new German immigrants and a co-founder of The German Society of Pennsylvania. And he played an important role in the Revolutionary War. While he was too told to actively participate in the fighting, he provided the soldiers with much-needed bread, and George Washington named him Superintendent of Bakers for the Continental Army. There is a charming children’s book about Ludwick entitled Gingerbread for Liberty! How a German Baker Helped Win the American Revolution.
Fast-forward to the spring of 2017 when the new American Revolutionary Museum was about to open in Philadelphia. The museum, whose collection includes Christopher Ludwick’s original cookie mold, made a replica of the mold for Shane Confectionery so that they could produce traditional gingerbread for the museum’s grand opening. It sold well, and so Shane Confectionary began offering the gingerbread during the Christmas season.As a collector of historic molds and gingerbread boards, Ryan Berley fully appreciates the beauty of the hardwood mold. It is two-sided, which was common in Christopher Ludwick’s time, showing a woman on one side and a tulip on the other.
“Ludwick’s gingerbread is a combination of American history, food history, aesthetics and taste,” says Ryan. And since a relative of his, Nicholas Berley, a Pennsylvania German, also fought in Washington’s army, and might very well have been sustained by the bread coming from Christopher Ludwick’s bake shop, there is a personal connection for him too.
During Christmas season, Ryan gives talks about Christopher Ludwick and historic gingerbread molds from his own collection (find the schedule here).
Following another German tradition, Shane Confectionery also offers marzipan and clear candy pigs for New Year’s.
As lebkuchen as it gets
After I tasted one of the lebkuchen made by Sandy Lee’s New York-based Leckerlee, I wondered if they would have tasted as good if she had been been awarded an internship at a German lebkuchen manufacturer. Sandy told me that after lebkuchen had become her passion, she inquired about an internship at several companies in Germany but none replied.
So Sandy figured it out on her own. Her lebkuchen are top both in terms of authenticity and taste. With a flour content of only 7%, they qualify as the finest German lebkuchen called Elisenlebkuchen that must not contain more than 10% flour and at least 25% nuts and almonds.Another key ingredient of lebkuchen is candied citron and orange peel, which Sandy imports from Germany because US products are heavily coated with high fructose corn syrup and contain other additives. Leckerlee lebkuchen have a bottom of edible paper called Oblaten, which Sandy also imports from Germany.
Finding lebkuchen of such superior quality in America is all the more remarkable because most lebkuchen made in Germany are mass-produced and often contain ground apricot kernels instead of nuts and almonds. Plus, they hit the stores as early as August and contain stabilizers to keep them fresh.
Sandy’s lebkuchen infatuation started when she first encountered lebkuchen at a Christmas market in Berlin, where she spent 2.5 years on a break from her then job in finance to learn German.
“I had no background in food, I was not even a baker. But I wanted to learn how to bake authentic German lebkuchen so I studied old trade manuals,” Sandy told me. Reading the old Fraktur typeface is not that easy, even for untrained native German speakers so I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for someone learning German, and how badly Sandy wanted to get a handle on finding the perfect lebkuchen recipe.
After she returned to the US, Sandy realized she had acquired so much knowledge that she wanted to do something with it. In 2011 she started Leckerlee, making up the name from the German word for a treat, Leckerli, and her last name.
Leckerlee produces lebkuchen with two types of coating, sugar and chocolate. Traditional lebkuchen are large, about 4 inches in diameter. Usually food portions in America are bigger than they are in Germany. But, in the case of Sandy’s lebkuchen, it was the other way round – many customers found them too big. Reading the market signals, Sandy introduced mini lebkuchen in 2013. They are about 45% the size of a traditional lebkuchen, and they have become Leckerlee’s most popular item.
Another feature that makes Leckerlee’s lebkuchen totally authentic German are the exquisite tins which you will hold on to long after the lebkuchen have been eaten. Leckerlee releases new tin designs every year, inspired by German vintage lebkuchen tins, and they have become collectors’ items.Leckerlee is a seasonal business, operating from November through January. The lebkuchen are available at brick and mortar stores across the United States, they can be ordered by mail, and Leckerlee also has a booth at the Union Square Holiday Market in New York City.
I asked Sandy, from her vantage point as an American finance professional turned German lebkuchen baker, what she views as the main difference between Germany and the United States. Sandy said, “In Germany there is a formal structure to learn something. In the United States there are fewer boundaries. Here, if you dedicate your mind to something, you can make it a business even if you don’t have the formal training”.
Photo of Ryan and Eric Berley, Christopher Ludwick gingerbread with mold courtesy of Shane Confectionery.
Photo of Sandy Lee courtesy of Leckerlee.