There is something so undeniably christmasy about gingerbread. Right along with the smells of fresh evergreens, and the delightful aroma of warm sugar cookies, the instantly recognizable combination of ginger, cinnamon and cloves immediately signals that we are smack in the middle of the holiday season. At this time of year gingerbread is everywhere, not only in delicious cookie confections and intricately constructed pieces of architecture, but in scenting candles, coffees, and even slightly more unique items like lip balm and shampoo. Why? I think because gingerbread, outside of being a common part of many people’s holiday celebrations, is the sort of thing that has the ability to evoke a host of memories just by its smell alone. Christmases past and present, celebrations spent with family, and that snowy afternoon you spent baking and cooking with grandma as a small child. Everyone has their own special memory that comes to mind.
For us, nearly every year leading up to the holidays has included making gingerbread in some form (usually gingerbread people), to share with friends and neighbors. Even after discovering that we were gluten intolerant, those recipes were just slowly converted to gluten free ones. In fact, shortly after perfecting recipes for gluten free gingerbread, we had a lot of fun making elaborately dressed gluten free ginger bread people, and a beautiful gingerbread house, recipes for all of which can be found in our book.
When I was small, I remember always being enamored with the delicately iced gingerbread houses that you so often see in store window displays around the holiday season with their perfect icing snow, and sugar pane windows, mainly because sugar, certainly white sugar, was not something ever consumed in our house. I could never actually imagine eating any piece of the gingerbread houses I would see, instead looking at them with absolute amazement, like a magical dwelling inhabited by unseen residents that would possibly come alive when I wasn’t looking, with lights shining from the windows, and delicate smoke curling out of the tiny chimney.
When I was eight, I remember going into the Nutcracker Tea Room in Issaquah WA with my parents, a place that was a family favorite for special occasions. I’m sure that some of you reading this from the Seattle area must remember this wonderful place, which I know has since closed several years ago. I know the Nutcracker was a local favorite for many people, with its beautiful garden filled with flowers and roses in the summer, a touch of European elegance created through white table cloths, real china, wonderful food and pastries, and two large wooden nutcrackers that would preside over the entrance from the high street.
Anyway, we went there for tea near Christmas when I was eight, only to walk through the door and discover, to my absolute delight, a large, incredibly beautiful gingerbread house, sitting in all its glory on a side table. It had two stories, special chocolate candy shingles, sugar pane windows, gum drop lights, and a fence all made out of candy canes. No doubt seeing my intense interest, I was quickly informed by the owner that this amazing creation was in fact part of a raffle for all the kids in the area; all that was necessary was my parents permission, and a filled out slip of paper with my name, and our address and phone number. Permission quickly obtained, we filled out our entry and dropped it into the brightly colored box that served to hold the raffle entries. Even though I was somewhat in awe of the gingerbread house, as I’m sure any little child would have been, looking at it from across the room over and over as we had tea, after submitting our entry, I eventually forgot about it. Nearly a week later, when an unexpected phone call came, I was completely thrilled to learn, amazingly, that we had actually won. Wonder of all wonders, the amazing gingerbread house was actually ours to keep. I probably grinned like the Cheshire Cat, a smile stretching from ear to ear as we picked up the gingerbread house and brought it home, to sit for the rest of the holiday season and be admired by everyone that came to our house. That gingerbread house, unlike most, was never eaten. I am sure my memory of an amazing Christmas does not stand alone. What are some of your favorite memories of gingerbread creations? We would love to hear them in the comments below.
Beyond being simply a family favorite, a holiday dessert beloved by children and adults alike, gingerbread actually has a long and fascinating history, stretching all the way back to the early Greek and Roman empires. Their gingerbread was probably something more resembling the German Lebkuchen, a sweet and spicy cake preserved with honey.
The word “gingerbread,” itself is a variation of the Old French word, “gingebras,” again derived from the Latin word for ginger “zingebar.” In Medieval Europe, if you would have asked for gingerbread, most likely you would have simply been given pieces of dried ginger root, the name only later coming to be associated with sweet cakes and cookies. Originally, ginger itself was only added to breads and pastries not only for its spicy flavor, but for its preservative ability to make things last longer, in a time when something like the refrigerators that we all take for granted, would have only been a dream.
“and I had but one penny in the world, thou should’st have it to buy gingerbread.” (William Shakespeare, Loves, Labors, Lost)
As its fame spread, gingerbread quickly became such a popular addition to nearly every local market and town fair during the Middle Ages in Europe, that they quite often became known as “gingerbread fairs,” and the cookies and cakes sold there as “fairings,” especially in England. Then, gingerbread was not only sold around the Winter holidays as it is today, instead every holiday and season had its own shapes; buttons and flowers for the Spring, animals and birds for the Autumn. If you are interested to learn more, click here.
Even though most of us are familiar with the traditional gingerbread cakes, cookies, and houses, many types of gingerbread exist throughout the world.
In England to this day, though the more common varieties do exist, gingerbread is most often a rich dark spice cake containing treacle (a thickened molasses), and a variety of spices, as well as sometimes more unusual additions like mustard, pepper, raisins, nuts, and dried apple.
It is usually baked in a loaf shape, or a square like brownies, and often eaten as part of the Guy Fawkes and Bonfire night festivities, on top of being part of a traditional Christmas. This type of gingerbread is usually something that we would call “ginger cake” in the U.S, different from traditional gingerbread cookies, but similar to a French dessert known as “Pain d’epices”, a ginger cake which is slightly lighter, owing to the fact that it uses honey as the main sweetener instead of treacle.
Probably the most famous country with a long history of making gingerbread is Germany. Lebkuchen, is a traditional soft gingerbread baked around the holidays, sweetened with honey, and flavored with spices like ginger, cloves allspice and anise seed. It was a cookie most resembling Lebkuchen that can be traced all the way back to the Egyptian, Greek, and Roman empires. At a time when sugar was extremely rare and very costly, honey was the primary way of sweetening any food. Considered to be a gift from the gods, honey cakes were sometimes worn as talismans for protection against evil. Though the soft varieties of Lebkuchen are well known, another common version is often made into iced hearts which are inscribed with special sayings, and given to friends and loved ones. This same variety of gingerbread was also popularized thanks largely in part to the story of Hansel and Gretel, and the Witches cottage made entirely out of candy that they discovered.
Throughout the world, the German city of Nürnburg, has become known as something of the unofficial gingerbread capital. Where in most other cities, artisan guilds formed during the middle ages for sculptors, painters, and weavers, in Nürnburg, an entire artists guild of master bakers formed, that dedicated itself to the perfection and creation of gingerbread.
To this day, gingerbread can only be called “Nürnburg Lebkuchen” if it does in fact originate within the city, otherwise it is simply in the style of, and has to state as much.
It is once again in great part to the Grimm’s brothers story of Hansel and Gretel that gingerbread houses have become popular. Though I am sure people created small buildings out of gingerbread for many years, it does not seem to be until after the fairy tale was published, and became wildly popular, that gingerbread houses just like the witches cottage, became well known. Now for many people, Christmas time would not be the same without them. Actually, in a true statement of life imitating art, a Swedish company created a life size gingerbread house inside the Stockholm main train station.
Personally, upon seeing the pictures, I am surprised that no one was tempted to break off a piece!
Gingerbread cookies in the shape of people have an entirely unique history. Thought to be traced to Queen Elizabeth the I of England, the making of gingerbread people was not really documented until her reign. As the story goes, she first requested ginger cookies to be made in the likeness of very important guests and foreign dignitaries, and served at banquet.
In modern popular culture, the sight of gingerbread has somehow managed to sneak in all over the place. Of course, the famous children’s story of “The Gingerbread Man,” about a smart gingerbread cookie who runs so fast that he outwits everyone who tries to eat him, only to be tricked and eaten by a fox, is well known. It is upon this that the cute character of “Gingy” from the movie Shrek and all its sequels, is based. To see a funny clip of Gingy in action, click here.
One of the most famous gingerbread houses on display in the U.S. is most likely the one expertly created every year by the chefs at the White House.
Usually an exact replica of the White House itself, the spectacular gingerbread creation can weigh up to several hundred pounds. For an interesting look at just what goes into creating this every year, click here.
What part will gingerbread play in your holiday celebrations this year? Is there a particular variety that is your favorite? Is it decorating gingerbread people, or creating an elaborate structure covered in icing snow? We would love to hear your stories and comments below.