Yet another foray into my Lord of the Rings food craziness. I’m posting this in time for Trilogy Tuesday and the release of RotK because it strikes me as good waiting-in-line food. I’ve already made a batch for my little group!
Making up a recipe for lembas is tricky. What we know about lembas from Tolkien’s writing is sketchy at best. They are described as both cakes and wafers, crisp, light brown on the exterior and cream colored inside, and made of some sort of meal. They are dry and keep well if left wrapped, and they break into pieces but do not crumble into crumbs. They also taste very good, and have a special virtue of healthfulness and nutrition. A single wafer is sufficient to fuel a hard day’s journeying.
Thinking about this description, these are the criteria I decided upon for my lembas. It needs to approximate the appearance described in the book. It needs to be very neutral in flavor yet still appealing, neither salt nor sweet at first bite. It needs to be strong in structure, strong enough that it would not pound to dust in one’s pack (assuming you’re going somewhere!). It needs to be reasonably filling, and more nutritious than the average cookie or cracker.
With this, I searched the web and found many versions of lembas and even one for cram. What I didn’t find was a version that satisfied my requirements. Many are for cakes that seem more like either dessert or a breakfast sweet, contain visible pieces of dried fruit, quantities of honey (which is hydrophilic and would soften the cookie over time), or are otherwise overly soft, thick, or sweet, and generally unsuitable as potential 'travel food.' (This is apparently as a result of Gimli describing it as tasting better than the honey cakes of the Beornings.)
I’ve gone through 8 versions of this, using primarily almonds, but also dried chestnuts. I have yet to try chestnut flour (which should have a better texture than ground dried chestnuts), and will add a recipe (if it works) when I’ve had a chance to run a few tests. This is the closest I have come to my image of lembas. There are still deviations (crunchy, not crisp, the color isn’t quite right), but I’m happy enough to post this one. It is an easy recipe, tastes quite good, and keeps well. The high proportion of almonds gives it its understated yet rich flavor, and they are quite filling for their size. This makes 16 pieces.
1.5 c. (150 g) white flour
1.5 c. (180 g) blanched almonds
- (purchase them blanched, or blanch them yourself and then dry them out in an oven at low heat, and let them cool thoroughly before using. Freshly blanched almonds will throw off the moisture balance of the recipe. Using blanched slivered almonds will not change the volume measurements!)
1 tbsp. sugar
a pinch of fine sea salt
3 tbsp. (48 g.) butter
4 tbsp. (2 oz.) water
optional: I usually make it plain
1/4 tsp ground cardamom or finely grated lemon zest
Preheat the oven to 400°
Grind the almond and flour together in a blender or food processor until most of it is very fine, and none of the almond bits are larger than fine (raw) couscous. Make sure to grind in pulses, shaking the mixture together between each, or else the almonds will get oily. Aim for a loose, cream colored meal that is not much heavier in appearance than flour. Almost like cornmeal or semolina. If there are a few larger chunks of almonds that the blades have missed, pick them out as you find them.
Add the salt, any optional flavoring and then cut in the butter until it disappears. Add the water and stir the mixture until it comes together. Using enough flour to keep it from sticking, knead the mixture just a bit and then roll it out to 1/4 of an inch thick. Using a knife, cut it into 3 inch x 3 inch squares. Gather up the scraps and re-roll and cut out squares until you’ve used up all the dough. Place the squares half an inch apart on an unlined baking sheet. Bake until the edges are golden brown. About 15-20 minutes. Do not underbake, or they will not be crisp. The edges will be a medium golden brown and the top will be a blond color. The bottom will be a little darker than the edges. Place on a rack to cool, and then place in a tin or individually wrap.
For fun occasions, I wrap mine individually in polyfoil leaves. I purchase rolls of polyfoil for my cake baking escapades and the silver foil is backed with green. I accordion fold strips and cut out leaf shapes that are 5 inches wide and about 8.5 inches long and vaguely beech leaf shaped (mallorn leaves look like giant beech leaves, but are green on top and silver on their underside, turning golden in the fall). I then open a ‘leaf’ silver side up with the narrow ‘top’ facing away from me. I place a piece of lembas in the middle, fold up the bottom, fold in the sides, and then fold down the top. It looks charming, and keeps excellently this way.
February 5, 2004 I finished the last piece of lembas from my Trilogy Tuesday batch. It was still good, wrapped in its ''leaf wrapper'' and stored in a plastic bag at room temperature. It was a tad less crisp than when I had first baked it. Indeed, just cooled from the oven, it was crunchy. The next day, it was more crisp than crunchy. Over time, they must have either redistributed moisture or absorbed some moisture, or both. Nonetheless, the last piece of lembas had not gone rancid, still had a fine robust texture, and still tasted good. I've also discovered that these are a handy snack when running late for class.
- Nutritional Analysis
Total calories per batch: 1925
Calories per piece: 120
Carbohydrates per piece: 9.9g
Sugar per piece: 1g
Fat per piece: 7.7g
Saturated fat per piece: 1.7g
Protein per piece: 2.3g
Contains small amounts of Vitamin A, calcium, iron, and whatever additions your flour may contain.
A testimonial! - rootbeer277 says re lembas: My latest batch suggests that Lembas cooks more evenly from piece to piece if you use a cookie cutter to make them all the same size. I can't stop eating this stuff! - And indeed, they do cook most evenly if they are all the same size. I use a ruler and a straight edge on mine, as I like the 3'' square dimensions.
Incidentally, you may think that lembas shows up first and foremost in The Lord of the Rings as a gift from Galadriel and Celeborn to the Fellowship.(LotR, p.360-361) However, lembas has a much longer history, and Tolkien clearly had an idea of its value as a plot device. In The Silmarillion, Beleg Cúthalion receives elvish waybread from Melian, Queen of Doriath.
'Another gift I will give to you, Cúthalion,' said Melian, 'that shall be your help in the wild, and the help also of those whom you choose.' And she gave him store of lembas, the waybread of the Elves, wrapped in leaves of silver, and the threads that bound it were sealed at the knots with the seal of the Queen, a wafer of white wax shaped as a single flower of Telperion; for according to the customs of the Eldalië the keeping and giving of lembas belonged to the Queen alone. In nothing did Melian show greater favour to Túrin than in this gift; for the Eldar had never before allowed Men to use this waybread, and seldom did so again. (Sil. p.202)
He takes this on his search for Túrin Turambar, and with it saves Túrin's band of outlaws from starvation and death. Its healing properties against illness and injury are noted beyond that of simple sustenance. Its special properties are so clear, that in one version of the Narn I Hîn Húrin it even helps exacerbate an already troubled situation. In a footnote:
Andróg was cured of this wound by Beleg, but it seems that his dislike and distrust of the Elf was not thereby mitigated; and Mîm's hatred of Beleg became all the fiercer, for he had thus 'undone' his curse upon Andróg. ... It came into Mîm's mind that if he also ate the lembas of Melian he would renew his youth and grow strong again; and since he could not come at it by stealth he feigned sickness and begged it of his enemy. When Beleg refused it to him the seal was set upon Mîm's hatred, and all the more because of Túrin's love for the Elf. (Unfinished, p.152)
To be fair, Mîm would have betrayed Túrin anyway, and no mention of this interlude is in the Silmarillion version. It is interesting, however, to see how Tolkien's mind was working about the waybread's properties and how it was to be perceived by those unfamiliar with it.
Another mention of Elvish waybread is made by Voronwë to Tuor. Tuor has been told by Ulmo to seek Turgon and the hidden kingdom of Gondolin. Voronwë, a citizen of that realm, knows the secret way and accepts Tuor's necessity and companionship. As context, it might help to remember that Tuor will later become father to a little lad named Eärendil and is thus Elrond's grandfather.
'Yea,' said Tuor, 'But whither will you lead me, and how far? Shall we not first take thought how we may fare in the wild, or if the way be long, how pass the harbourless winter?'
But Voronwë would answer nothing clearly concerning the road. 'You know the strength of Men,' he said. 'As for me, I am of the Noldor, and long must be the hunger and cold the winter that shall slay the kin of those who passed the Grinding Ice. Yet how think you that we could labour countless days in the salt wastes of the sea? Or have you not heard of the waybread of the Elves? And I keep still that which all mariners hold until the last.' Then he showed beneath his cloak a sealed wallet clasped upon his belt. 'No water nor weather will harm it while it is sealed. But we must husband it until great need; and doubtless an outlaw and hunter may find other food ere the year worsens.' (Unfinished, p.33)
Apparently the knowledge of waybread also exists in Númenor, and the Númenóreans produce their own similar trail ration. This knowledge is passed down and kept for alive some time. In presenting the later speculation by Elessar of how Isildur dies at the Disaster of the Gladden Fields, Tolkien writes
... if Isildur had reached the west shore wearing the Ring he should have eluded the watch, and so hardy a man of great endurance could not have failed to come then to Lórien or Moria before he foundered. Though it was a long journey, each of the Dúnedain carried in a sealed wallet on his belt a small phial of cordial and wafers of a waybread that would sustain life in him for many days - not indeed the miruvor or the lembas of the Eldar, but like them, for the medicine and other arts of Númenor were potent and not yet forgotten. No belt or wallet was among the gear discarded by Isildur. (Unfinished, p.276)
The most detailed description of lembas' appearance, however, is still the passage in The Lord of the Rings.
In the morning, as they were beginning to pack their slender goods, Elves that could speak their tongue came to them and brought them many gifts of food and clothing for the journey. The food was mostly in the form of very thin cakes, made of a meal that was baked a light brown on the outside, and inside was the colour of cream. Gimli took up one of the cakes and looked at it with a doubtful eye.
'Cram,' he said under his breath, as he broke off a crisp corner and nibbled at it. His expression quickly changed, and he ate all the rest of the cake with relish. (LotR, p.360)
It goes on, and there are further passages sprinkled throught LotR which describe lembas' appearance, taste, durability and healthful quality. This is specially remarked upon when Frodo and Sam are travelling across the plateau of Gorgoroth, with no other food and with barely any water. Trust hobbits, no matter their condition, to remember in their accounts the details of their food!
- Tolkien, J.R.R., ed. Christopher Tolkien, The Silmarillion, Allen and Unwin, Ltd., 1977.
- Tolkien, J.R.R., ed. Christopher Tolkien, Unfinished Tales: of Númenor and Middle-Earth, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1980.
- Tolkien, J.R.R., The Lord of the Rings, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1994. (single volume edition)