Some people go abroad and bring back a tattered Lonely Planet guidebook and a photo memory card full of bucolic, indecipherable landscapes. Sandy Lee brought back a business plan. The Leckerlee founder moved to Berlin in 2009 for a break from New York, and during her first year there, she fell in love with lebkuchen, Germany’s traditional wintertime gingerbread. One bite at a Christmas market had her hooked, and Lee decided to learn everything she could about the spice-packed pastry. When the time came to return to the States, she decided to make the personal infatuation a professional one and launched Leckerlee in 2011. Here, the corporate-development-professional-turned-baker explains her gingerbread fascination, Berlin living versus NYC, and why you should eat lebkuchen in its entirety — even that disc on the bottom that looks like paper.
Why did you choose to live in Berlin?
I think part of it was that the rents were very affordable there. It’s not like I had a job bringing me there, so that made it a possibility. I also just loved the city itself. It’s a nice contrast to New York. New York is just so crazy and busy, whereas Berlin is definitely a more relaxed atmosphere.
What was it about gingerbread that inspired you to launch your own business?
I think it was just because it tasted like nothing else I’d ever known or tasted. It’s hard to explain; because it’s made mostly of almonds and hazelnuts, it’s not really like any kind of gingerbread that we know here. It’s a different kind of flavor. There are two varieties — there’s a plain one and a chocolate-covered one. There’s something about that combination of flavors — it was so delicious. I became obsessed with it.
Which variety was the first to win your heart?
The chocolate one was the one I fell in love with and became obsessed with. I make both, and it’s the same dough for both, actually–but one is covered in chocolate.
How did you develop the Leckerlee recipe?
It was a combination of research, conversations with German bakers, exhaustive lebkuchen tasting, and experimentation. I tracked down a bunch of old lebkuchen books from as early as the late 19th century that detailed some of the old recipes and techniques. I also spoke casually with German bakers to ask questions. For example, a friend of mine from Bavaria connected me with the neighborhood bakery that he grew up with, and I was able to chat a little more extensively with their master baker about the lebkuchen baking process. I tried lebkuchen from every bakery in Nuremberg that I could find and started to get a sense of how the proportions of various ingredients affected the ultimate taste. And then I tried to synthesize all that knowledge and began a long process of recipe development and experimentation.
Did you develop your lebkuchen recipe abroad or back in NYC?
Once I was back in the States I had to continue to tweak it because some of the ingredients are a little bit different here — so I kind of had to work with what was available and figure out what I’d need to import. Even things like hirschhornsalz, the baking powder equivalent that you’d use traditionally in Germany, is just not very common here in the States. I had to make adaptations like that.
What is it about Nuremberg lebkuchen that is so special?
Nuremberg lebkuchen is the most premium kind. It has the most nuts. You can get other kinds in the supermarket, but they are wheat flour based. The Nuremburg style is the kind you’d find at a Christmas market traditionally. I think it’s kind of the original lebkuchen, the real lebkuchen. It’s the one I really, really loved. The other ones I love, too, but the other ones are more like a cookie. This one is kind of between a cookie and a cake; it’s very dense and rich because it has all of the nut flour and nuts in it. And this is the one that the monks made in Nuremberg.
Is there any significance behind Leckerlee’s decorative gift tins?
The Nuremberg lebkuchen is what traditionally comes in the decorative tins — which was something that I wanted to be a big part of Leckerlee. I liked that idea of giving it as a gift during the holidays in beautiful tins, which you don’t see so much anymore. I had found all kinds of vintage lebkuchen tins from the ’50s, ’60s and even the early 1900s that were so beautiful. They’re almost like works of art, in a way. The reason you’re able to find so many vintage tins in Germany is because people keep them around after they’re done with the lebkuchen and repurpose them to put knick knacks in or to store spices or coffee. I liked that idea of something endearing that people would want to keep around. So I spent a lot of time thinking about the design that I wanted. I had started to collect a bunch of images over time of things that I liked. For each tin I have very specific ideas of what I’d like — the feel, the theme, etc.
What has New York’s reaction to lebkuchen been like?
There are definitely people who know and love lebkuchen. Whether they’re German or have spent time in Germany, these are the people who will seek me out and find me. Other people haven’t heard of lebkuchen, but because in New York, especially, people are so open to trying new things, they try it and they also become lebkuchen fanatics for some of the same reasons. Because it’s not like anything else that exists here.
How do the flavors of Leckerlee lebkuchen compare to the original Nuremberg lebkuchen?
It’s definitely a very traditional taste — it’s very authentic in that way. I haven’t made any changes apart from just having to adapt to the ingredients we have here. Because of the honey, spices, and its high content of nuts — almonds and hazelnuts — it has a very earthy, nutty, and warm flavor profile. And then there are also little bits of candied citron and orange peel in there, as well.
What’s the deal with the wafer on the bottom of all lebkuchen?
It’s called oblaten. It actually has its roots in the communion wafer because lebkuchen was invented by monks, and they used to put it on these wafers because the dough is so sticky — because of the honey and almond paste — and it’s very hard to work with. They put it on the wafer so it wouldn’t stick to the baking sheets. And that wafer is still used for a lot of different pastries in Germany, and lebkuchen is one of them.
And this is edible, correct?
Yes! It’s a key part of it. For a couple reasons, Americans’ instinct is to peel it off — I remember doing that also. And I haven’t done this yet, but I want to put a little sticker that says “it’s edible.” It lends a really nice, textural balance.
Is lebkuchen considered a year-round pastry or a holiday treat?
I actually only produce it during the winter (from November 1 through January 31). I had the idea of keeping it seasonal from the very beginning because I wanted to be traditional to the way it is in Germany. The majority of lebkuchen is only available during the holiday season. I like the way that it appears when it gets cold. You start to associate it with the fall, winter, and the holidays, and I like that it actually goes away because it makes it a little more special, in a way — you can look forward to it. Also, it’s really more of a winter food — it’s hearty, it’s warm, and it’s spicy — exactly what you want to be eating in the winter.
What has been the most challenging aspect of this whole process?
I think it would be the fact that I had no experience in the professional food world. I had to learn all of that when I first came back to start the business — the basics of how to work in a commercial kitchen, various pastry techniques — I had to learn a lot. Things like baking at scales, tempering chocolate — these are the kind of things I just didn’t know anything about before I started. I’m still learning all of the time.
What has been your favorite part of this journey?
Just the idea of introducing lebkuchen to people, sharing my obsession with people, and getting people to also be obsessed with it. For people who are already obsessed with lebkuchen, just being able to give them a lebkuchen that’s produced locally in the States and with the high quality that we do. Lebkuchen inspires obsession in a lot of people, and it has a lot of history for many people. For a lot of people who had grandparents who made it for them, [Germany] is the only place that they knew to get it. So when they taste it, they get so excited because it brings them back to that time. Or people have parents who are now in their 80s or 90s who are German who haven’t tasted it in a long time, and they’ll give it to them — and they get so excited. It’s just really heartwarming to get that kind of feedback from people.