Laura Dean Bennett
“And I had but one penny in the world, thou should’st have it to buy gingerbread.”
~ William Shakespeare, from “Love’s Labor’s Lost”
This is the time of year that gingerbread takes a starring role in kitchens, dining rooms and Christmas buffets across the land.
Everyone knows that gingerbread cookies are one of Santa’s favorite treats, and even Santa’s reindeer love them.
I really never realized that gingerbread is a lot older than our grandmothers’ recipe books – like thousands of years older.
Gingerbread, although not in its current form, was being baked by the ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians as far back as 2000 BC.
It was originally referred to as “spiced honey cakes” and was first used for ceremonial purposes.
The spices that were used would change over time, as exotic spices became more accessible and popular.
The idea of a gingerbread-like cake eventually caught on outside of ceremonial circles.
In Greece and Egypt, the delectable flat cakes were given as gifts to show one’s love, the way we give candy on Valentine’s Day these days.
Historians have noted that wealthy Greek travelers to the Island of Rhodes sought out the high-prized “spiced honey cakes” made there.
Gingerbread arrived in Europe in 992, brought by an Armenian monk named Gregory of Nicopolis.
Gregory had lived in France for seven years, teaching the art of making an early form of “gingerbread,” which, at that time, didn’t include any ginger – as the spice was still unheard of in Europe.
Finally, in the 11th century, ginger made its way to Europe from Malaysia by way of the Middle East – when the Crusaders returned home with it.
Roman Catholic monks were among the first to add ginger to their honey cakes and cookies.
They are thought to be among the first to put the cookie dough into intricate molds – in their case, depicting saints and religious scenes.
As ginger and other spices became more affordable, gingerbread caught on.
An early European recipe consisted of ground almonds, stale breadcrumbs, rosewater, sugar and ginger, ground into a paste which was pressed into wooden molds.
In 15th-century Germany, gingerbread was taken so seriously that one had to belong to a gingerbread guild in order to bake it.
Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III had gingerbread molded in his likeness. It would then be accompanied by gingerbread hearts and horses and distributed as a sort of mass marketing political campaign.
Still to this day, gingerbread is extremely popular in Germany, and elaborately decorated hearts and horses are still popular shapes for gingerbread cookies there.
And in England, Queen Elizabeth I often commissioned life-sized “gyngerbrede” sculptures of her royal guests of honor or visiting diplomats and served the treats to them at state occasions as a mark of special honor.
In 17th century England, gingerbread took many forms – it could be dense and made into cakes, or crisp and made into cookies. And it was sometimes served as a warm, thick cake and served with lemon sauce.
Gingerbread became popular at fairs. It would be tied with a ribbon and was often exchanged as a token of love.
It was also being passed out as folk medicine “love spells” for young women.
It was believed by some that if a young lady could get the young man of her dreams to eat a gingerbread man that had been specially made for him, her beloved would fall in love with her.
There is no data as to the effectiveness of this ploy.
Although, really, what young man can resist the taste of gingerbread?
Gingerbread really gained popularity among the masses in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Russia and the British Isles by the end of the 16th century when sugar began replacing honey and molasses in not only gingerbread recipes, but in baking in general.
By the end of the 17th century and into the 18th century, the addition of butter and cream in European gingerbread recipes gave rise to gingerbread cookies that are quite similar to those we make today.
The English tradition of making gingerbread men made its way to America with English and German colonists, who often shaped their honey-spice cookies into likenesses of family members and animals.
But the “gingerbread man” didn’t become an American cultural staple until 1875, when a children’s publication called St. Nicholas Magazine published a story called “The Ginger-bread Boy.”
It was about a gingerbread boy who runs away from an old woman, a little old man, a cow, and other relentless pursuers – before he is finally eaten by a fox.
This story was an adaptation of many centuries-old European folk tales with a similar narrative but featuring other baked goods, such as pancakes.
It became a national sensation.
It’s not clear why or when the gingerbread man took over the starring role in the folk tale, but the author of the St. Nicholas piece explained he had originally heard it from an immigrant servant girl who had herself heard it as a child and, in turn, had told it to his children.
By the early 20th century, the idea of the living gingerbread man character had found its way deep into American culture.
L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, chose a gingerbread man as the protagonist of his 1906 novel, John Dough and the Cherub.
Today, the gingerbread man is still featured in popular culture. He’s in the game Candy Land and the Shrek movies.
And he’s, of course, prominently featured on Christmas cookie platters every year.
But how did these little gingery “men” become a Christmas tradition?
The popularity of gingerbread during the holidays can probably be traced back to the widespread belief that spices heated us up in the winter.
And where did we get the idea to make gingerbread houses?
They first appeared in Germany during the early 19th century, probably inspired by the fairy tale about Hansel and Gretel.
German immigrants and the Pennsylvania Dutch brought the tradition of making gingerbread houses to America when they settled here.
Then, in the 1950s, department stores began creating Christmas scenes out of gingerbread because the aroma of the gingerbread was an excellent way to attract customers.
So, for at least two or three hundred years, Americans have been baking gingerbread cookies, cakes, houses and even Christmas Tree ornaments!
For those of you who’d like to ply your guests with a little slice of gingery heaven, or perhaps bewitch the object of your affection, try this Gingerbread Cake recipe.
Gingerbread Cake with Lemon Sauce or Caramel Sauce
Courtesy of the Toronto Star Newspaper
1 3/4 cups flour
1 tsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground ginger
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. grated nutmeg
6 Tbsp. butter
2/3 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup molasses
1/2 tsp. vanilla
2/3 cup boiling water
Grease an 8-inch square pan. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.
Mix the flour, baking powder, soda, salt and spices together. Cream the butter, gradually add the brown sugar and cream thoroughly. Stir in molasses.
Beat egg until thick, and beat into the creamed mixture. Stir in the vanilla.
Add the dry ingredients to the creamed mixture a third at a time, mixing well after each addition.
Gradually add boiling water, stirring after each addition. Turn into prepared pan.
Bake for about 50 minutes. Serve warm with lemon or caramel sauce.
4 tsp. cornstarch
Few grains salt
1/4 cup white sugar
1 1/2 cups boiling water
2 tsp. butter
1 tsp. grated lemon rind
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
Combine cornstarch, salt and sugar in a small saucepan. Slowly stir boiling water into the sugar mixture. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until the sauce is smooth and thickened. Cover and cook over very low heat or over boiling water in a double boiler, stirring occasionally, until no raw starch taste remains, about 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in butter, lemon rind and juice.
1 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup cream
pinch of salt
2 tsp. vanilla
Mix all the ingredients together. Simmer for about 5 or 6 minutes. Serve over warm gingerbread.
This sauce also pairs well with bread pudding or apple pie and ice cream.