The earliest versions of gingerbread didn’t always contain ginger and weren’t always bread. The Romans prepared panis mellitus with German wheat flour, honey, pepper, and dried fruit. The Chinese mikong (honey bread) is mentioned as part of the rations of the horsemen of Genghis Khan. It is generally believed that gingerbread was introduced to Europe during the time of the Crusades. At Pithiviers, however, it is held that gingerbread was introduced into the city by St. Gregory, an Armenian bishop who took refuge there in the 11th century. Whatever the case, it was from that time that the manufacture of gingerbread spread into the Netherlands, Britain, Germany, Belgium, France, and Italy.
The French called the English gingerbread “pain d’epice,” which literally means “spice bread” – a perfect name for a beloved cookie that has a wonderful mix of spices, usually with ginger, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, and cinnamon. The cookie varies considerably in shape and texture, and can be crispy or cake-like.
Scottish gingerbread resembles shortbread. During the 19th century, they were known as Parliament cakes or “parlies.” Thin, crisp gingerbread made with treacle (a British term for molasses) and brown sugar, it was common to cut the cookie into squares for the members of Parliament to enjoy. Late medieval gingerbread in England had been made from a thick mixture of honey and breadcrumbs, colored with saffron or sandalwood. Cinnamon and pepper were added for flavor.
Gingerbread was also ornamented by impressing designs with wooden molds that were large, elaborate, and beautifully carved. In England, such confections were bought at fairs and, together with other sweet treats, were known under the collective name of “fairings.” Queen Elizabeth I’s reign during the 16th century was known for elaborate royal dinners where she employed a gingerbread maker. She had gingerbread men made in the likeness of foreign dignitaries and people in her court. Gingerbread men were also prepared by folk-medicine “magicians” who would create them as love tokens for young women. The belief was that if they could get the man of their choice to eat the gingerbread man that had been made for them, the man and woman would fall in love.
Generally, during the 16th and 17th centuries, gingerbread became lighter. Bread crumbs were replaced by flour and treacle (molasses) was used instead of honey from the mid-17th century on. Butter and eggs became popular additions, enriching the mixture, and raising agents were added to lighten it further. These are the cookies which our modern gingerbread cookies resemble.
Gingerbread cookies are part of our Christmas and winter holiday cookie tradition. Their popularity around this time of year could be due to the belief that spices heat you up in winter. However, they came to be an important tradition, and everyone can agree that they are fun to make, decorate, and most of all, eat!
GINGERBREAD MEN COOKIES
(2 dozen, 5” tall)
Whisk together thoroughly:
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
¾ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 ¾ teaspoons ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
Using an electric mixer, beat on medium speed until well blended:
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, softened
¾ cup packed dark brown sugar
1 large egg
Add and beat until well combined:
½ cup molasses
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
Gradually stir in the dry ingredients until well blended and smooth. Divide the dough in half. Wrap each half in plastic and let stand at room temperature for at least 2 hours or up to 8 hours. (The dough can also be stored for up to 4 days, but in this case, it should be refrigerated. Return to room temperature before using).
To bake, position a rack in the upper third of the oven. Preheat the oven to 375 F. Grease cookie sheets. Place one portion of the dough on a lightly floured work surface. Very lightly, sprinkle flour over the surface of the dough and dust the rolling pin. Roll out to a scant ¼ inch thick. Lift the dough frequently and add a bit more flour to the work surface and rolling pin as necessary to prevent sticking. Cut out the cookies using a 5” tall gingerbread boy or girl cutter. With a spatula, transfer them to the cookie sheets, spacing about 1 ½ inches apart. Roll the dough scraps and continue cutting out cookies until all the dough is used. If desired, garnish with raisins and/or red hots for eyes and buttons.
Bake one sheet at a time until the edges of the cookies are just barely dark, 7-10 minutes; rotate the sheet halfway through baking for even browning. Remove the sheet to a rack and let stand until the cookies firm slightly. Transfer the cookies to racks to cool.
1 egg white
Pinch cream of tartar
1 ½ cups confectioner’s sugar, sifted
In a large bowl, beat egg white and cream of tartar until frothy. Gradually add confectioner’s sugar, beating until stiff, shiny peaks form. Using a pastry bag fitted with a plain tube, pipe the icing onto cookies to create faces and other features. Add candies, etc. to make buttons and eyes, using the icing as a glue. Let stand until icing dries, about 1 hour.