The 641 Project: Gingerbread

You can’t think of Christmas without thinking of cookies.  Brightly decorated cutouts; kinds with seasonal ingredients and flavorings; elaborate, fancy designs; the good ol’ classics…

photo by Stephen Hart

photo by Stephen Hart

And gingerbread.  People and houses are made from this sweet, spicy cookie, and decorated so lavishly that you’d dare not eat them!  Bakers don’t limit themselves to just gingerbread people shapes and houses, though, but use any cookie cutter at their disposal.  Ginger cookies can be are crisp as gingersnaps or moist and chewy.

Its name comes from the 13th century word “gingerbras” (Old French for “preserved ginger”) which became “gingerbread” during the 14th century.  Cooks discovered that ginger helped to preserve pastries and bread, which is probably how “bread” became part of the name.  Early gingerbread is nothing like the cookie or the moist cake that we know today.  Medieval gingerbread was a mixture of breadcrumbs, spices (ginger being one of them), and honey, pressed into molds or shaped by hand.  It was a popular treat at fairs throughout Europe, and served to celebrate special occasions and religious holidays.  It’s said that Queen Elizabeth I invented the idea of the gingerbread man:  She had likenesses of important court visitors baked up for gifts.  She was likely following the practice of other monarchs who, as early as the 15th century, had gingerbread molded into their own likeness for propaganda usage.

Gingerbread houses were being made in Germany around the early 1800s.  Historians can’t agree whether the Witch’s’ house in Hansel and Gretel was inspired by the craft of gingerbread house making or if the craft was inspired by the story, but the craft got a big boost from the Brothers Grimm tale.  German settlers took the tradition with them to the United States, especially in Pennsylvania.  By this time, gingerbread was made with flour, eggs, butter and other spices, using either honey or molasses.  The cookies were like shortbread, and the cake had developed.  Cookie cutters were probably used more than molds at that time.  Gingerbread men and animals were hung as ornaments on Christmas trees. The Pennsylvania Dutch baked and decorated very large gingerbread cookies around Christmastime to decorate the windows of their homes.

Gingerbread has a long (and yummy!) history.  It’s association with special occasions lead to its place in Christmas tradition.  (But you don’t have to wait ’til then to enjoy it!)

*****

This blog is in no way a complete history of the delicacy.  Check out these and other sources to get a better picture:

The Food Timeline – http://www.foodtimeline.org/christmasfood.html  Scroll down to the artlce on gingerbread.

An in depth essay by Dr. Alice Ross, along with some historic recipes – http://www.journalofantiques.com/hearthdec.htm

The article on gingerbread in Encyclopedia of Christmas, available at CCLS.

Gingerbread cookie, men and house recipes can be found on the internet using your favorite search engine.  My favorite gingersnap recipe comes from a December 12, 2002 Atlanta Journal-Constitution article.  Access it using the Newsbank database available through CCLS (click here).

When baking, make sure your ginger and other spices are as fresh as possible (no more than a year old) for the best flavor.

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Published in: on December 10, 2008 at 6:12 pm  Leave a Comment  

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