When the holidays are in full swing, who doesn’t love the taste of warm, spicy gingerbread? It may come in the form of succulent squares of cake, in crisp cookies or in soft and chewy gingerbread men. Children love the tradition of building gingerbread houses and decorating them with a variety of icings and candy treats. Gingerbread is definitely part of our holiday traditions.
The history of gingerbread is interesting. It was first brought to Europe from the Middle East as a result of the spice trade. An Armenian Monk, Nicolas Pompeii is thought by some to have been the first to teach the recipe to French priests. The term gingerbread comes from Latin zingiber by way of the Old French word gingerbras. In early days the term was used for preserved ginger and breads that contained that product.
By the 15th century the word gingerbread began to be used in reference to sweet cake made with treacle and ginger. By the 19th century it became the aromatic treat we know today and associate with Christmas. Gingerbread became so popular in Europe that tasting fairs were held with various ginger products: spiced cakes, thin cookies and dark brown bread served with cream. The cakes and cookies were cut into various shapes according to the season. In fall there were birds and animals, in spring flowers, and sometimes there were small circles known as “snaps.”
In English villages young girls ate gingerbread men called “husbands” to ensure a good marriage. Sometimes the villages celebrated their patron saint and ate cookies in that shape.
Colonial America enjoyed the traditional gingerbread in cake form, but often used fewer spices and flavored the recipes with either maple syrup or molasses. It is thought that Queen Victoria increased the popularity of gingerbread when she made it part of the royal Christmas festivities.
Before there were cookie cutters, the ginger cookies were made by rolling out the dough and pressing shaped boards on top. The shapes were quite elaborate, especially in Germany. Eventually the baking of gingerbread products moved from the monks and priests to local bakers who formed guilds to protect their businesses. Gingerbread houses were first made in Germany and were called knusperhaeschen meaning houses to nibble.
Here are some of our favorite gingerbread recipes to enjoy this holiday season.
Old-fashioned gingerbread cake: If you love the texture of rich gingerbread cake with a dollop of whipped cream on top, then this is the recipe for you. Just like Grandma made.
Gingerbread Cookies: Here is a whole batch of ginger cookie recipes. You’ll find all shapes and sizes and a variety of textures. But you’ll enjoy the same ginger taste in each one.
Best dough for Gingerbread Houses: While you want your gingerbread house pieces to be sturdy, you also want to eat them. Use this tried and true recipe and then build that gingerbread mansion.
Go to Martha Stewart’s site to find some truly amazing gingerbread recipes—snowflakes, fantastic cookies and cupcakes, and of course, gingerbread houses.