When I was about 14, I asked my great-aunt to teach me to make lep cake.
Lep cake, as we make it, is a rich, spicy bar cookie, full of candied fruit and molasses and chocolate and bourbon, topped with royal icing. Like fruit cake, to which it bears a passing resemblance, it’s better if you make it ahead of time to let all the ingredients come together and get happy with each other.
In doing some research, I’ve found that it’s possible that the name comes from the German lebkuchen, but lep cake is very different from the recipes I’ve found for lebkuchen. Regardless of its origins, lep cake means Christmas to our family.
When I was little, Aunt Eddie was in charge of making the lep cake. Aunt Eddie was a very precise baker – she would meticulously cut every raisin and every glacé cherry into four pieces. She would also ice the sides of each piece with the precision of a neurosurgeon before icing the top. She would make lep cake for the whole family, and it would be served alongside my great-grandmother’s eggnog at my grandmother’s house every Christmas Eve.
When Aunt Eddie passed, my great-aunt, Aunt Ginny, took over the annual lep cake production. Teenage Me thought of herself as a baker. So I asked Aunt Ginny to teach me the way of the lep cake.
Aunt Ginny and I spent a wonderful afternoon in her kitchen, measuring, chopping (Aunt Ginny did not feel that each raisin had to be cut into four equal parts and happily used a food processor), and baking. She told me about her parents, gossiped about her sister (my grandmother), and insisted that I take all the lep cake home with me.
After Aunt Ginny passed, the family accepted that lep cake had passed from our lives forever. Until my sister took up the apron and continued the tradition. As she lived in Seattle, she would pack the lep cake with the precision of a neurosurgeon for its trip to Texas and our Christmas Eve table.
It’s been a few years since we had lep cake now. But this year, my college freshman asked if we could make some when they came home from college.
We went shopping for the ingredients. It’s surprisingly difficult to find candied fruits these days! We gathered our tools and set to work.
While Teenage Me thought she was a baker, Middle Aged Me knows that she isn’t. Baking is very precise, and I’m more of a “sure, that looks like the right amount” kind of cook. But with a kiddo to do the measuring and mixing, I’m a GREAT baker!
We spent a rainy afternoon in our kitchen, measuring, chopping (I am fully in Aunt Ginny’s food processor camp), and baking. I talked about my parents and sister, they talked about their friends and classes at college, and we laughed. The lep cake, I’m sorry to say, got burned because we were laughing too much to remember to turn on the timer.
Okay, so I’m still not a baker.
1 ¼ cup sugar
1 cup molasses
¼ pound German sweet chocolate (melted)
2 cups pecans, chopped (optional)
1 cup whole almonds (optional)
2 cups raisins, cut into quarters (or, you know, pulsed in a food processor until they are smaller than they started out)
8 ounces candied citron
3 ounces candied pineapple
6 ounces glacé cherries (I actually modified the recipe a bit and cut these in half)
½ cup bourbon
6 eggs, separated, reserving 2 whites for the icing
3 ½ cups all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons cinnamon
2 teaspoons cloves
1 ½ cup confectioner’s sugar
2 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 375°.
Sift the flour together with the baking powder, salt, and spices into a large bowl.
Using a stand mixer, beat 4 egg whites to the very soft peak stage. Add in the 6 egg yolks and beat until light. Add in the sugar, melted chocolate, and molasses and beat to combine. Add in the bourbon and combine.
In a bowl, toss the raisins and candied fruit with about 1/3 cup of the flour mixture. This ensures that the fruit doesn’t sink to the bottom of the lep cake before it is cooked.
Fold the remaining flour mixture into the wet ingredients, a little at a time. Once it’s incorporated, fold in the candied fruits and the nuts, if using. Pour into a greased 9×13 baking pan and bake for about 25 minutes, or until a skewer or knife comes out clean.
While the lep cake is cooling, make the icing. Using a clean bowl and beaters (I mean, seriously clean – even a little bit of fat in the bowl or on the beaters will prevent the egg whites from fluffing), beat the remaining 2 egg whites to stiff peaks. Slowly beat in 1 ½ cups sifted confectioner’s sugar, alternating the sugar with 2 tablespoons water and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract.
Once the lep cake is cooled, cut into bars while still in the pan. Spread the royal icing over the top and walk away. The royal icing needs to dry out, so loosely cover with a sheet of wax paper and set the pan aside. Serve with eggnog that has been dusted with a healthy shake of nutmeg!