Holiday baking traditions: German Lebkuchen

lubuchen

Welcome to our special holiday series of blog posts, Holiday Baking Traditions. We’re very excited to bring you our versions of several cultural and regional holiday favorite recipes, the ones that families and friends turn to year after year.

These are the recipes that have to be on the table for the holiday meal, the ones that are eagerly awaited all season long. They speak to our ethnic upbringings, our traditions to pass on to the new generation. Some have crossed cultures over the years; some are less well known, but all are rich in history, meaningful to our community of bakers… and, above all, amazing and delicious!

Out of all of the Holiday Baking Traditions recipes this year, I found Lebkuchen to be the most daunting to approach. It certainly wasn’t the most technically challenging; in fact, it’s very simple to put together. No, this recipe for me was the first to bring up the  comment we knew we would get from readers more than any other…

“That’s NOT how my family makes it!”  Sometimes this is followed by sympathy, a bit of pity for the uninformed heathen who doesn’t know any better.

Sometimes the comment is followed by a how-dare-you-ruin-100-years-of-tradition speech.

In the best case, the comment is followed by a wonderful recipe and shared family story, a real outreaching of spirit and community. We WELCOME all of these comments, honestly we do. Bring on the recipes, bring on the history, bring on the personal family stories.

Sure, you can even bring on the tirades; just keep ‘em civil! It’s OK to disagree, so long as we do it agreeably.

Thanks so much for joining us for this special holiday journey. Let’s begin our trip with Lebkuchen, a German favorite: spicy bar cookies with the snap of ginger and the tang of orange and lemon.

Stir the honey and brown sugar together in a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat.

Bring the honey/sugar mixture to a boil. Remove from the heat, transfer to a large bowl, and allow to cool until just lukewarm. If you can stick your finger in the mixture and it feels just barely warm, you’re good to go.

When cooled, beat the honey mixture with the egg and grated citrus rinds. If you’re using orange and lemon oils instead, add them now. If you’re using candied diced peel, add that when you add the flour.

Dried ginger root (left) and whole nutmeg (right) are deeper and more robust in flavor than pre-ground spices. If you have them, definitely use them in this recipe; they’ll make the spice mixture sing. Simply grate them with a Microplane or spice grater as you would grate hard cheese.

Don’t be daunted by the amount of spice in this recipe. These bars are meant to invigorate the senses and mind on cold winter days.

To save time and dishes you can grind the crystallized ginger and nuts together in a food processor. The nuts will also keep the ginger from becoming too sticky to work with.

If you don’t have a food processor, you can use a chef’s knife to mince the two together.

Combine the flour, spices, nuts, and ginger with the honey mixture. If you’re using candied diced peel instead of grated peel, it would be added now as well.

I’m a big fan of candied peel in this recipe. I like the chewy bits of citrus, and the slight bitterness of the peel. It’s what keeps me coming back for just one more bite.

Stir until the mixture is well combined and no flour is left unincorporated. It will be thick and sticky, and will smell divine!

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and chill overnight.

Next day, preheat the oven to 350°F and lightly grease a 9″ x 13″ pan. For easy cutting, you can also line the pan with parchment if desired.

Remove the dough from the bowl. It will be very thick and still slightly sticky, very similar to bread dough at this point.

Gently roll and pat the dough to a rectangle slightly smaller than 9″ x 13″. Lift the dough and place it in the pan, gently patting all the way to the edges. Be careful not to press down hard, or the edges will be tough.

Bake the bars at 350°F for 20 to 25 minutes. A cake tester inserted into the center will come out clean.

Remove the pan from the oven, and immediately make the glaze. Better yet, make the glaze while the bars are baking; you want to glaze them while they’re hot.

Combine the confectioners’ sugar with the liquid of your choice. I used brandy and boiled cider, but apple juice or cider would work just as well.

Brush the glaze over the warm bars. Let the first layer sink in a bit before applying another. Be sure to use all of the glaze; it’s key to the bars’ texture and taste.

Allow the bars to cool completely before cutting into small squares, about 2″ x 2″. The glaze will firm up and become a shatter of sugar with every bite.

It’s hard to resist these bars with their sweet, spicy, gingery goodness scenting the whole house. IF you have any leftovers, store them at room temperature for several days; they’ll improve with age.

We hope you’ve enjoyed our first foray into Holiday Baking Traditions. Please share your comments, ideas, stories, and recipes, both here and on our community site.

Please bake, rate, and review our recipe for Lebkuchen.

MaryJane Robbins
About

MaryJane Robbins grew up in Massachusetts and moved to Vermont 20 years ago. After teaching young children for 15 years, she changed careers and joined King Arthur Flour in 2005. MaryJane began working on King Arthur Flour's baker’s hotline in 2006, and the blog team ...

comments

  1. lsy524

    lovely recipe!
    i look forward to baking this right away as it seems to be a healthy choice for a “sweet.”
    do you recommend any particular honey?
    thanks…looking forward to all the holiday recipes.
    Local honey is always lovely, if you can find one with citrus that would be really nice. Jeff, our master baker, says he prefers to use older aged honey, so if you have bees and harvest your own honey, use last year’s crop. Happy baking! ~ MaryJane

    Reply
  2. carla

    These sound wonderful!!

    And you are using one of my absolute favorite additions to powdered sugar icing…boiled cider! OH! MY! Wonderful!!

    The glaze is made even better when you add complimentary spices to match the vessel that the glaze is being applied to…heavenly!

    Reply
  3. deniserambo

    It would be nice if the recipe was included in the blog post instead of having to click over to another page to get the recipe.
    Thanks for the suggestion Denise. ~ MaryJane

    Reply
  4. dmhouse

    My partner is 100% German and I cannot wait to make this over the weekend. He has been recently talking about growing up in Berlin and Beirut and the different smells of all the baked goods his mother made. I hope I can do her proud.

    Reply
  5. Dee

    For your holiday series, consider Venezuelan Pan de Jamon. Its found at EVERY Christmas table across the country.
    Thanks Dee. We’ll have to start making our list for next year already! ~ MaryJane

    Reply
  6. Leanne

    Nuts, there’s nuts. Will sunflower seeds work in baking? I’ve used them instead of nuts in pesto.
    Leanne, I think sunflower seeds would work very well in this. Give it a try and let us know how it goes. ~ MaryJane

    Reply
  7. Cyn

    That recipe goes on my list for holiday baking, starting right after Thanksgiving! BTW, I made the Taste of the Tropics fruitcake last year, to rave reviews from family and boyfriend — so that’s making a return.

    I loved your note, MaryJane, about the comments you will expect from this blog entry! Of course, food evokes so many emotions. The true Joy of Cooking (pun intended) comes from the very fact that every family does put a different spin on traditional recipes. So, no — my family’s way of making divinity isn’t going to be your family’s way. And, that is perfectly all right.

    When my grandmother passed away two years ago, my mother and I commented that we’d never taste her incredible cornbread dressing again. Well, talk about a message from beyond. In an old Home Ec textbook we found in Grandma’s cookbooks, she had actually written the ingredients AND measurements for her dressing. Will it taste exactly like hers when I make it this Thanksgiving? Most likely, not — but what an incredibly sensory memory we will enjoy nevertheless.

    Thanks for not only a very useful blog from KA, but also for being willing to share your personal stories.
    HI Cyn. You are sooo right. The first big fight I ever had with my best friend Elaine was over the correct icing for spice cake. I grew up with vanilla, her family used chocolate. Luckily, no food fight ensued and 20 years later we are still besties, but emotions can definitely get the better of us sometimes. Thanks for sharing! ~ MaryJane

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  8. twistedstring

    Oh wow, I never realized that Lebkuchen was (or at least in this case) dairy free! Yipeeeee! (insert wild spicy cookie happy dance)

    I used to gobble them as kids when relatives would bring it!
    Can not wait to try this one out with some of our wonderful Round Rock Honey. Great local wildflower honey that is unfiltered. :)
    Happy dancin’ right along with you. Enjoy your cookies! ~ MaryJane

    Reply
  9. katiekt

    Would it be possible to make this with sugar instead of honey? I am allergic to honey, believe it or not, and therefore don’t use it. (My only other allergy is a mild response to eating too many mangoes. I know I am lucky …) How much honey would give the right amount of sweetness? Would I need to add a little liquid?

    You do need to keep the sugar “liquid” in this recipe. Try using an equal amount of blue label Karo. Frank @ KAF.

    Reply
  10. HMB

    Not my traditional recipe, but who cares? This sounds good, I’ll have to try it, and we can have fun doing a taste test!
    Great idea! Maybe you can have your own Throwdown, or Iron Chef Lebkuchen battle? ~ MaryJane

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  11. Louise

    In thinking about next year’s list of traditional baking, how about adding the unique and wonderful Czech pastry, kolaches? Our family loved these rounds of pastry filled with poppy seed, dried fruit or cheese fillings. Yummmmm!!!

    I’ll add it to the list. Frank @ KAF.

    Reply
  12. milkwithknives

    Hooray! Oh, I’m excited about the holiday posts to come! This recipe looks wonderful, and I’m definitely on board for a cookie/bar recipe that isn’t drowning in butter or oil.

    Would you say a maple glaze is a good idea, or do these spices need the apple?

    Personally, I think maple will clash with the spices and the peel. But this isn’t about me. Give it a try. And please, share your the results. Frank @ KAF.

    Reply
  13. Anne

    Holy wow! These sound amazing! Can’t wait to try them out. Always on the look out for a recipe that actually has some character and not just sickly sweet.

    Reply
  14. Laura

    It is tradition that every Christmas instead of bringing presents, I bake breads, and treats. I can’t wait to try this receipe for my family who are all from Germany.

    Reply
  15. Michelle

    I. Am. SO. Excited. Holiday Baking Traditions as going to be AWESOME! :) When I first looked at the picture of the bars, I thought, “Those look kinda icky and gooey and just not me, ” but by the end I now can’t wait to try them!

    Perhaps, as we get closer to the New Year you can post on Vasilopita? That’s a Greek sweet bread for the New Years. Maybe you’ve done it before, but if not, maybe you will this year!

    Thanks for being always awesome!

    Reply
  16. bellesaz

    I’m happy to see that these do better with age! I live in a new neighborhood with new people moving into homes on a fairly regular basis. I wanted to do a Cookie platter this year to welcome them.. this will be a wonderful addition to my standard fare!

    Reply
  17. wendyb964

    I, too, dislike honey. Could I use Lyle’s Golden Syrup, blue agave syrup, or 100% pure maple syrup? Think the golden syrup might be a nice addition though i love the maple flavor.

    Use an equal amount of any of these. Frank @ KAF.

    Reply
  18. Dormommy

    katiekt was nervous about honey. She could use molasses instead. That makes them technically Nuernberger, but the idea is the same.
    My grandma’s recipe uses citron, and a non apple glaze. These cookies MEAN Christmas for all of her grand kids (and the 18+ greats). She even ships them out for the holidays.
    Now I need to call her.

    Reply
  19. knemeyer

    I love this blog because your descriptions make me try recipes I normally wouldn’t think twice about! For the glaze, would Applejack Brandy work?

    I don’t know why not! Try it and let us know how it turns out! kelsey@KAF

    Reply
  20. zubill

    Do you have an internal temp for these when fully baked? I must confess I have moved into checking internal temps on my breads, and would find it helpful to know what temp to expect.

    We don’t have a final internal temperature of this recipe. The temperature at which cakes and brownies (or something like Lebkuchen) set strongly depends on the sugar concentration of the batter, which varies widely from recipe to recipe. You could try baking the bars for the recommended 20-22 minutes, check with a cake tester or toothpick for doneness, then take the temperature after the tester comes out clean. You could then refer to that temperature for future uses. kelsey@KAF

    Reply
  21. Jen

    I always like seeing other version of my family traditions. My family’s version of lebkuchen was from a handwritten 3×5 card. It calls for either honey or molasses. And after the overnight rest, instead of bars you roll the dough out and make cut-out cookies. I always love making them.

    Reply
  22. lillabit2001

    These are definitely not my grandmother’s (or mother’s) lebkuchen, which had both honey and molasses, are rolled out and cut, and have a cooked glaze. I still make them every year for my extended family, but I don’t look forward to it, because the sticky dough is hard to roll out even when cold and the glaze is a pain to keep the right consistency. I do love them, though, and if I manage to squirrel some away in a cool place, they are still good (make that better) a month or more later–I do take the apple out long before that, so it doesn’t grow mold and ruin the cookies. I’m looking forward to trying this recipe, though I might still have to make the “traditional” ones, so that I don’t have to listen to howling protests about tradition!

    I found your fight over icing for spice cake interesting, Mary Jane. My first reaction was a big NO for vanilla nor chocolate, though I suppose I would like them if I tried them. Cream cheese frosting, penuche frosting, or browned butter frosting all sound better to me for spice cake, though.
    Too funny Lillabit! The argument was well over 20 years ago and I bet both Elaine and I would love cream cheese or browned butter frosting now. :) ~ MaryJane

    Reply
  23. lorrainesfav

    Thanks again King Arthur for great recipes! I can’t wait to try these cookies with the local honey I bought this week. Wildflower and Orange Blossom are on my shelf with dates of when they were harvested and from what county here in Florida. I will take your advice and use the oldest honey. Lorraine
    Hi Lorraine,
    I can see the orange blossom honey being oh-so-good in this recipe. Have fun! ~ MaryJane

    Reply
  24. juthurst

    Honey Lebkuchen is a family staple for Christmas in our family.
    Commonalities: candied citron, honey, spices, eggs, and glaze.
    Differences: we use some shortening, honey AND sugar, pecans and almonds, dough ferments for 5 days before rolling out and cutting cookies, makes 450 thin cookies instead of bars.

    I find that using my kitchen aid mixer with grinder attachment I can grind the nuts and the citron so that the dough is smooth for rolling out cookies. Once baked and cooled I glaze with a lemon juice-powdered sugar glaze… heaven! There are plenty of cookies for sharing with family and friends.

    My mom is not up to the rigor of our lebkuchen recipe any more, so i’m gonna suggest she uses your simpler version… thanks! Sounds so yummy!

    Reply
  25. Cassandra

    The recipe looks interesting, but it wouldn’t be Christmas if I didn’t make the family recipe with molasses and more citron, rolled and cut onto rough squares with a simple glaze…the smell of lebkuchen baking IS Christmas morning…:)

    Reply
  26. lynrbailey

    I’d like to make this as a drop cookie, onto the Oblaten, the little wafers traditionally under round lebkuchen. Rolling out is not what I want to do, and with your wonderful cookie scoops, it should be really easy, but I’m not sure where or what to add as extra liquid to make it a drop cookie. Any ideas?
    I have not looked for the Oblaten in a while. But, don’t they come in sheets, too? You could press the dough onto the sheets in a pan. But, to make a looser batter, perhaps reduce the amount of flour or add a few teaspoons of liquid, such as water. Elisabeth

    Reply
  27. Emily

    Would it be possible to roll the dough out directly in the pan? I think I’d have trouble rolling out a sticky dough and then transferring it.
    Yes, you can try that. You may not find this dough as sticky as you may expect. Roll onto a piece of parchment paper. Then try rolling the dough onto your rolling pin to make the transfer. Good luck! Elisabeth

    Reply
  28. biobaker

    Rarely do I not double (or triple!) the spices in the cookies and sweet breads I bake, so this recipe sounds right up my alley. Being less fond of “sweet” than I am of “spice,” however, my first instict was to omit the glaze. Then I read your note on the glaze being intrinsic to the texture of the bar and hesitated. Can you clarify what textural role the glaze plays so that I can estimate the effects (and perhaps try to compensate) for not using it? My thanks!
    Have you ever made cinnamon rolls? They need to be glazed while the rolls are still warm for the same reason as the Lebkuchen. Because they are warm when glazed, the glaze has a chance to seep into the baked good making for a softer and richer texture. If the glaze is applied once the baked good has cooled, the glaze will just ride across the top and the interior texture will not be as tender. If you are not wanting to use the Lebkuchen glaze, how about soaking with a simple syrup? Elisabeth

    Reply
  29. ddblack

    Can this recipe be made gluten free?
    You could try to experiment. You will need to replace any flour with a G-F blend and add xantham gum. Go to this page on our site about Gluten Free products. Scroll down and you will see info on converting recipes. Good luck! Let is know how it went. Elisabeth @ KAF

    Reply
  30. biobaker

    Thanks for the reply, Elisabeth, as it tells me everything I need to know. Yes, I do make cinnamon rolls, and I never glaze them. Too sweet! It sounds as though I can leave the glaze off these bars and be equally happy. The joys of baking to one’s own taste!

    Reply
  31. cstump

    Thank you so much for doing baking traditions. One of my favorite things every year is to explore my cultural heritage and make at least one new “treat” to share with the family that our ancestors may have had growing up. We don’t have many old family recipes handed down, but finding a regional, traditional favorite is the next best thing…and watching the next generation’s reaction to the first taste! I can hardly wait to see what it next…
    Hi there,
    I too come from a very small family with no really strong cultural ties, so I’ve gathered traditions from many friends and their families, and made them my own. I love playing dreidel, making potstickers, hanging the Christmas Pickle and the Christmas spider as part of our season. It’s a small world, after all. ~ MaryJane

    Reply
  32. Beth

    As old as I am, I should know this, but when I see recipes that tell me to put a cut apple in with cookies or bars or whatever, I get this vision of a rotting apple. So please clarify for me: Where does the slice of apple go? Do you wrap it first in plastic? Surely you don’t just place a cut apple in a container with cookies, and let the apple touch the cookies, do you? Or do you?? thanks.

    Yes, in fact, that’s exactly what I do: Put the papple right in with whatever. The apple doesn’t mold; it gradually dries out, and its moisture keeps cookies or sugar soft. When it’s completely dry, replace it (and I always eat the dried slice – yummy!) PJH

    Reply
  33. rochellebeam

    Can I successfully use fresh ginger root & if so, what amount? I don’t recall seeing dried ginger root in our local grocery store, but I know fresh is available. Or is the crystallized version preferable?
    Thanks!

    We haven’t tested using fresh ginger root in our kitchen. The fresh ginger will have a more “hairy” texture in your baked goods while the crystallized ginger will have more of a “gum drop” texture. So, if you are prepared for that texture difference you might be alright. But, I would use dried ginger (if available) before using fresh diced ginger. kelsey@KAF

    Reply
  34. sallybr

    These do not contain any calories, do they?

    :-)

    I’ve never heard of Lebkuchen, but it seems absolutely decadent, the combination of flavors makes my crave for it…

    Wonderful post, loved the photos too…
    Hi Sallybr,
    Thanks for the nice comment, I’ve been working hard on my photography. As for calories, they are holiday calories so they only come around once a year! ~ MaryJane

    Reply
  35. juthurst

    Re: the comments about using apple to soften cookies, the same can be accomplished with bread ends- you know the heel of a commercial bread loaf, or even with a slice of bread in the tin with the cookies.
    The bread dries out, giving its moisture to the cookies and when the cookies are soft, you can throw the crust in a bag in the freezer for bread crumbs or stuffing…

    Reply
  36. iahawk89

    In the oven now! The dough was VERY sticky. There was no rolling happening. I used it right out of the fridge because I was worried that it would be even stickier if I let it come to room temp. I gently pressed it to a (sort of) even layer. I’ll let you know how it comes out!

    Reply
  37. baking_barrister

    This is delicious and filled the house with such a nice holiday aroma. It makes me think of the German Chriskindl fairs. I was running low on honey, so I used a mix of honey and agave nectar. I didn’t have any ginger crystals on hand, so I just added an extra teaspoon of ginger. I look forward to making these again when I have the ginger crystals. It is a great, healthier dessert. For the glaze, I did 4 tablespoons of apple juice with 2 tablespoons of apple juice. The glaze never hardened but remained more sticky. While it’s still delicious, wondering if maybe I can do something different next time so that the glaze hardens more…any ideas? Thank you!
    Be sure to brush the glaze on while the bars are still hot. This helps cook out some of the moisture in the glaze and allow it to set and harden. ~ MaryJane

    Reply
  38. Chickadee

    This is remarkable similar to my family’s Lebkuchen recipe. So I will spare you my typical scorn and pity for inferior recipes. :-)

    Most of the ingredients are nearly the same, but I make a cooked glaze, just sugar and water cooked until a thread occurs, and it is wonderfully thin and crisp on the soft and dense cookie. I also don’t add candied ginger, just some candied lemon peel and finely ground almond and roll and cut out oblongs.

    Also, I heat the honey and molasses in the microwave to boiling. Much quicker and easier.

    I love these cookies more than any other, as does most everyone who eats one, but let me tell you, they are a royal pain to make. The dough is difficult and has to be kept cold, so it’s in and out of the fridge and the fridge ends up covered in sticky fingerprints. I chill the cookies on the sheets for a while before baking, so I am in and out of the garage a dozen times. The icing has to be kept at just the right temperature. The cookies will burn if you overbake them even for a few second. These are the only Christmas cookies that make me cuss.

    I am actually contemplating making things easier on myself and blending your recipe with mine to see what happens.

    Oh, and the apple or orange in the tin is absolutely mandatory. They are rock hard and not at all tasty when first baked. Not only does the fruit soften the cookies, it adds yet another layer of flavor. I change out the fruit every 3 or 4 days and it doesn’t go bad, but I don’t let it touch any cookies or they can get a soggy spot where it touched. The soggy spot goes away after a day or so, but you wouldn’t want to serve that cookie to someone before it went away.

    Reply
  39. glenner

    I made my Lebkuchen for the first time eight days ago closely following the KAF recipe. The honey I used was raw honey from our Farmers’ Market (so much more delicious than supermarket honey). I used both the orange and lemon zest as indicated but also added three tablespoons of candied diced lemon peel. Next time I might experiment with adding eight tablespoons of the candied lemon.

    When grinding the crystallized ginger and blanched almonds in the food processor, I think I would pulverize the ginger in the food processor first and then add the almonds for grinding so that the ginger would be finely ground and the almonds could be ground big enough to bite.

    The finished dough was surprisingly stiff and sticky from the refrigerator, but I managed to get it nicely into a glass baking dish having rolled it out on parchment paper.

    I appreciated the how-to photos on the blog; when removing my baked dough from the oven it had the same dimpled effect as in your photo.

    For the glaze, I used three teaspoons of Applejack Brandy (from a suggestion by knemeyer above) and three teaspoons of regular supermarket apple juice. That worked for me. Very tasty!

    I baked the dough for 21 minutes–22 would have been too long in my oven. The baked dough was extremely dense. At first, I preferred the bars from the “inside” of the pan as opposed to those touching the “outer rim”. After cutting, I stored the Lebkuchen in a tin with apple slice as suggested. I think the apple slices “lessened the distance” in flavor and texture between the “inside” and “outer rim” bars. At first the bars were good, but with each passing day their flavor became deeper, more complex, and finally–astounding! I had a couple with my morning coffee each day. The ginger bars tasted great through the whole eight days with no loss of quality.

    Thanks to KAF for offering this series of special recipes. Without it I would probably have never even heard of Lebkuchen, but now I have made it! I am hoping to bake all of the recipes in this series.
    Thanks for sharing your Lebkuchen story. I’m so glad that we were able to bring you a new recipe that may well become a new tradition.
    With your saying you may bake all the recipes in the series, that gives me a fun idea for more series, and maybe even “baking challenges” … Can you bake them all? Can you make these 4 recipes in 5 days? Sounds like buckets of fun to me!
    ~ MaryJane

    Reply
  40. vibeguy

    @MaryJane – BRING IT ON. You don’t scare me. ;0)
    Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? In case I haven’t said it enough, I LOVE the hair! My DD, age 15 has been dying her hair colors since 4th grade. Right now it’s purple with pink roots, but she’s got that look in her eye for a new color. Everything looks good on her except pure black. Maybe it’s time for winter white?? ~ MaryJane

    Reply
  41. vibeguy

    The only thing that would make a baking challenge like that more awesome is the ability to directly insert photos into Discussion postings on the Circle. I love seeing where other people go with a recipe.

    Another challenge idea that would be interesting is a multiday series that uses an “old dough”/chef method, where day 1 is a straight dough, day 2 uses some of it as a chef/starter, day 3 builds on that to maybe a full levain, etc, etc, etc, and each day results in finished baked goods, not just “build starter, go read _People_”. I’ve never gotten to a place with yeast baking where I have “flow” – it’s always starting discrete ferments for each project.

    Reply
  42. revgal

    This is very much like my Swiss-German grandmother’s recipe. No ginger in ours, and traditionally we let it sit in a cool place for up to two weeks–I highly recommend this as it REALLY lets the flavors mingle and meld, and it also rises some as our recipe has just a bit of baking soda in it. We also throw a little rum in the batter and the glaze. Yum!

    Reply

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