Leckerlee Founder Sandy Lee Wants To Share Her Gingerbread Obsession
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.
Leckerlee via Facebook
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.