The history of a Christmastime favorite: Gingerbread

The history of a Christmastime favorite: Gingerbread

by Anna Leigh Bagiackas
Stripes Okinawa

The kitchen is chilly and dark as I start a pot of coffee. I find my warm socks and slippers and notice that it’s snowing out the window, the first real snow of the year! And then I remember it’s December 1, the first day of my Advent calendar, and suddenly, it feels like Christmas. So, I grab my ginger, nutmeg, allspice, flour and sugar and make my go-to recipe that celebrates the start of the season: warm and spicy ginger cake—a great way to start a magical season.

Ginger: the magic ingredient

After trips around France, Germany, England and the Netherlands—each making various claims to gingerbread treats—I wanted to dig a little deeper into the history of this seasonal favorite. As is often the case with unearthing the roots of a beloved dish or ingredient, the path is not straightforward; it’s rather circuitous and sort of confusing, but that’s part of the fun!

Ginger first made its way to Europe via the Silk Road Trade, and it is believed that it was first baked with in the 11th century. Some say that the very first recipe comes from Greece. The first “gingerbread” was known as “preserved ginger” because baking it was a way to preserve the spicy root, which was also known to have medicinal properties. In many baked creations around Europe, ginger was combined with a handful of other spices to create spicy and comforting treats.

What makes gingerbread so unique is that it has been transformed into so many different forms with different names, depending on where you are in Europe. There are soft and spongey cakes, such as Parkin in England, crisp and crunchy biscuits like ginger snaps and even heart-shaped decorative cookies worn at Oktoberfest festivals in Munich. Gingerbread is also often used as a decoration, made into hanging Christmas ornaments. This works particularly well because of ginger’s preserving properties, perfect for decorating your tree all season long. In the 17th century, France and Germany restricted who could bake gingerbread—only professionals—but that was lifted and it because a staple in many homes and bakeries.

When it comes to the gingerbread house, it is difficult to know exactly how it came about. In Germany, the Brothers Grimm fairytale “Hansel and Gretel” may have inspired the idea with its house made of candies and treats, but the gingerbread house may have also inspired the tale. In either case, Europeans have been building extravagant structures and Christmas scenes ever since.

Gingerbread’s history in England is also worth sharing. It was reported that Queen Elizabeth I brought gingerbread men into popularity when she had the cookies decorated to look like visiting dignitaries. This also popularized decorating the cookies with white or “royal” icing, as well as edible gold leaf, making decoration an important aspect of gingerbread making. You can also find centuries-old block gingerbread molds in England, which created intricate patterns and illustrations on gingerbread.

If you’re interested in visiting some of the centers of gingerbread in Europe, your list should include Nuremberg, Ulm and Pulsnitz in Germany; Torun in Poland; Pest in Hungary; Prague in the Czech Republic and Lyon in France.

Feeling inspired to bake your own gingerbread? Try this recipe!

Lebkuchen 

Makes 32 bars

Start to finish: 1 hour

1 egg, plus 1 egg white, divided

2 tablespoons neutral oil

1/2 cup brown sugar, packed

1/3 cup honey

1/3 cup molasses

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon Lebkuchen spice (see recipe below)

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 cup almonds, chopped

1/2 cup mixed candied fruits and peels, finely chopped, plus additional for decorating

1 1/2 cup powdered sugar

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Lebkuchen Spice Mixture

1 tablespoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon cloves

1/4 teaspoon each of mace, coriander, cardamon and ginger

1/8 teaspoon nutmeg

Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C) and grease a 15” x 10” x 1” baking sheet.

In a large mixing bowl, beat egg and oil. Add brown sugar and beat until well combined.

Add honey and molasses, mixing well. In a separate bowl, mix flour, lebkuchen spice and baking soda. Add dry ingredients to egg mixture and beat until combined.

Stir in almonds and candied fruit.

Spread mixture on baking sheet, using the back of a greased spoon or spatula to spread evenly.

Bake for 15 to 25 minutes. When done, score bars with a sharp knife immediately after removing from oven, just cutting through the top crust.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl beat the egg white, powdered sugar and lemon juice until smooth. Spread icing over warm bars and decorate with candied fruit. Let cool completely before cutting fully and serving.

(This recipe was adapted from Just Like Oma.)

 

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