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Gingerbread Hearts ‘Lebkuchenherzen’

My easy recipe for making traditional Oktoberfest Lebkuchenherzen or Gingerbread Hearts at home. Hang these brightly decorated hearts around the neck of your sweetheart (or eat and enjoy!)

My series of authentic Oktoberfest recipes continues today with one of the most famous of all festival foods: German Gingerbread Hearts or Lebkuchenherzen.

Anyone who has ever visited the Oktoberfest or the German Christmas Markets will have seen the many stalls selling these colourful heart cookies.

Ranging in size from tiny to absolutely enormous, these brightly decorated hearts are meant to be hung around the neck of your sweetheart – the bigger the heart, the bigger the love, or so the story goes.

Gingerbread Hearts Lebkuchenherzen decorated with Bavarian and German greetings on a wire rack.

A brief history of Lebkuchen

Where does Lebkuchen Come from?

Lebkuchen has a long history in Germany dating back as far as the 13th century, when it was being baked by monks in the (now Bavarian) region of Franconia.

In fact, the most famous gingerbread in all of Germany comes from the Franconian city of Nürnberg (Nuremberg), which exports lebkuchen all over the world.

Nürnberger Lebkuchen has been baked since 1395, and this special treat holds the coveted protected designation of origin, meaning it must be made within the city.

Lebkuchenherzen hanging at a volksfest, photo copyright Christian Krebel.
Lebkuchenherzen are one of the most popular festival treats in Germany © photo: Christian Krebel

What does Lebkuchen mean?

The German word Lebkuchen has two parts: ‘Leb‘ which possibly comes from the German word meaning life, ‘leben’ or the older ‘lebbe’ meaning sweet.

Kuchen is easy enough, as it is simply the German word for cake.

Why are gingerbread hearts sold at the Oktoberfest?

Oktoberfest Gingerbread hearts are incredibly popular souvenirs from the great folk festival and a Wiesn heart makes a wonderful gift or decoration.

Actually, Gingerbread hearts are sold at nearly every folk festival across Germany, the Oktoberfest is simply our biggest tourist attraction which has made them extra famous.

Can you make Lebkuchenherzen at home?

A large heart shaped cookie cutter on gingerbread dough.

Yes! My Gingerbread Hearts Recipe is fun and easy to make at home.

Gingerbread dough is easy to make, you simply combine all the ingredients (with lots of gingerbread spice) in a mixing bowl, mix using the paddle attachment of your kitchen machine or a wooden spoon until you have a smooth dough, then let the dough rest (this is an important step!)

After the dough has rested and the spices and flavours have developed, you can roll the dough out, cut it into the typical big heart shape (or lots of little lebkuchen hearts) using a cookie cutter and then bake.

Lastly, you get to decorate the hearts with colourful royal icing.

What ingredients are in Lebkuchenherzen?

Gingerbread has fairly simple ingredients, flour, white or brown sugar, honey, and lots of spices. Every baker has a different mixture, but commonly the spices include:

  • Nutmeg (Muskatnuß)
  • Allspice (Piment)
  • Cinnamon (Zimt)
  • Cardamom
  • Cloves (Nelken) and,
  • Ginger (Ingwer).
  • I also like to add a little unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa as this gives the Lebkuchenherzen a lovely dark colour and rich shine.

Can I substitute different spices in lebkuchen?

Absolutely. The spices used in lebkuchen vary anyway from region to region. Outside of Germany using mixed spice (UK/Aus/NZ) or Pumpkin Spice (US) will give you a similar flavour.

You can mix up your own spice mix, and I’ve given an example in the FAQ’s below.

What is written on Gingerbread Hearts?

Gingerbread Hearts, much like old fashioned sweetheart candies, have writing on them, usually a sweet or humorous term of endearment, a message of love, a greeting or good wishes.

The possibilities are limitless, but some of the most common German or Bavarian words are:

  • ‘I mog di!’ – I love you! (Bavarian)
  • ‘ich liebe dich‘ – I love you (German)
  • ‘Bussi’ – Kiss
  • ‘Schatz/Schatzi’ -Treasure
  • ‘Mausi’ – Sweetheart (literally ‘Mouse’, usually feminine)
  • ‘Spatzl’ – Sweetheart (literally ’Sparrow’)
  • ‘Bärli’ – Little Bear (for men)
  • ‘Prinz/Prinzessin’ – Prince/Princess
    and of course:
  • ‘Gruß vom Oktoberfest!’ – Greetings from the Oktoberfest!
Decorated gingerbread hearts close up.

Lebkuchenherzen are a fun way to make creative table place cards/party favours for weddings or big parties, with your guests names written on the front.

Can you eat Lebkuchenherzen?

Because Gingerbread Hearts are meant to be worn (and you can imagine the beating they take over an evening at the Oktoberfest!) or used as decoration, so they last a long time.

This also means they are sturdier than normal gingerbread, though if you’d like them softer you can bake them for 5 minutes less, either way, they are perfectly edible, and if you aren’t keeping them for posterity it would be a shame to waste all those lovely ingredients.

What to do with hard or stale Lebkuchen?

A famous German Hausfrau trick to soften gingerbread that has gone hard, is to put it in a metal tin with some sliced apple for a day or two – it works! Stale gingerbread is often used in another famous German recipe: Sauerbraten (recipe coming soon!)

Have you been lucky enough to receive a Gingerbread Heart from your sweetheart? I collect all of mine and they hang on my kitchen wall in Munich as decorations and reminders of happy times.


FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

I don’t have any piping bags! What can I do?

Freezer bags with the tip cut off work in a pinch, though you’ll only be able to decorate roughly.

Kits with a small selection of piping nozzles and disposable bags are often very affordable in the baking section of the supermarket.

How long will the Gingerbread Hearts keep?

It depends on the humidity where you live. In drier climates they can be used as decoration as they will simply dry out, In more humid climates they will last several days, or stored in a dry place for a little longer.

At the Oktoberfest, they are sold shrink-wrapped in plastic to protect them and make them last longer.

What is ‘mixed spice’?

Mixed spice is a common baking mixture of aromatic spices. In Germany, it is often sold as Lebkuchengewürz, while American Pumpkin Spice mix has a similar flavour profile.

You can make your own by mixing 2 Tbsp nutmeg, 2 Tbsp allspice, 1 Tbsp cinnamon, 1 tsp ground cloves, 1 tsp ground cardamom, 1 tsp ground ginger and 1 tsp ground coriander. Combine in a small jar and shake well.

I hope you are enjoying this series of Oktoberfest recipes! If you haven’t tried it yet, be sure to check out my famous Oktoberfest Roast Chicken or Bavarian Roast Pork!


Gingerbread Hearts Lebkuchenherzen decorated with Bavarian and German greetings on a wire rack.

Lebkuchenherzen Recipe

Gingerbread hearts, Lebkuchen herzen decorated with pink and blue royal icing

Gingerbread Hearts 'Lebkuchenherzen'

Yield: Approx. 8 Hearts
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
Decorating Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour

Anyone who has ever visited the Oktoberfest has seen the many stalls selling Lebkuchenherzen or Gingerbread Hearts.

Ranging in size from tiny to absolutely enormous, these brightly decorated hearts are meant to be hung around the neck of your sweetheart - the bigger the heart, the bigger the love, or so the story goes.

Ingredients

for the dough:

  • 400g (2 ½ cups) plain or all purpose flour
  • 200g (1 cup) sugar
  • 2 Tbsp runny honey
  • 1 ½ Tbsp mixed spice or lebkuchen spice (see notes for substitutions)
  • 1 ½ Tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp allspice
  • pinch of salt
  • 2 large eggs, room temperature
  • 50ml (3 Tbsp) milk
  • 25g (¼ stick) melted butter

for the royal icing decoration:

  • 2 egg whites
  • 500g ( 1lb.) powdered or icing sugar
  • 1-2 tsp lemon juice
  • food colouring, as desired

Instructions

    1. MAKE DOUGH: Put all ingredients for the dough in the bowl of a stand mixer with the dough hook or paddle fitted. Run the mixer for 5 minutes until the mixture forms a smooth, rather stiff dough and comes away from the sides of the bowl. If the dough is dry and crumbly, add a splash more milk. Turn the dough out onto the work surface, knead briefly, then shape into a round and wrap in cling film. Set aside for 30 minutes.
    2. CUT OUT HEARTS: Heat the oven to 180°C / 350° F / Gas 4 and line a tray with baking parchment / paper. Dust the baking paper lightly with flour and set aside. When the dough has rested, roll it out between two sheets of cling film to 1cm thick. Cut out as many hearts as you are able, re-rolling the dough as necessary. You can use either a large heart-shaped cutter or a stencil and a sharp knife.
    3. BAKE HEARTS: Place the hearts on the baking tray and bake in the preheated oven for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and use a skewer to make holes for ribbons (if using), then allow to cool on the tray for 5 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
    4. MAKE ICING: Meanwhile, make the royal icing. Using a stand mixer with the whisk attachment fitted beat the egg whites to firm peaks. With the mixer running, add the powdered sugar a tablespoon at a time until it is completely used up. Add the lemon juice to loosen the mixture a little, then divide the icing between 2-3 bowls for colouring. Colour each with a few drops of food colouring until the desired colour is reached and then transfer to piping bags.
    5. DECORATE: When the Gingerbread Hearts are completely cool, use a piping bag to carefully pipe messages or decorations onto them. Allow to set completely (up to 24 hours) before threading with ribbon and giving them to your guests, or your sweetheart!

Notes

  • Mixed spice is a common baking mixture of aromatic spices. In Germany, it is often sold as Lebkuchengewürz, while American Pumpkin Spice mix has a similar flavour profile.
  • You can make your own by mixing 2 Tbsp nutmeg, 2 Tbsp allspice, 1 Tbsp cinnamon, 1 tsp ground cloves, 1 tsp ground cardamom, 1 tsp ground ginger and 1 tsp ground coriander. Combine in a small jar and shake well.

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Nutrition Information:
Yield: 8 Serving Size: 1 Heart
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 591Total Fat: 4gSaturated Fat: 2gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 2gCholesterol: 54mgSodium: 136mgCarbohydrates: 131gFiber: 2gSugar: 91gProtein: 8g

Nutrition information is calculated automatically and isn’t always accurate.

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Jay Wadams
Jay Wadams

Jay Wadams is a cookbook author and food photographer. Jay is the author of two cookbooks: 'Tasty' (2017) and 'Simply Summer' (2019). Based in Italy 🇮🇹 Germany 🇩🇪 and Australia 🇦🇺.

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