On her website The History Kitchen, Tori Avey explores the story behind the food – why we eat what we eat, how the recipes of different cultures have evolved, and how yesterday’s food can inspire us in the kitchen today. Learn more about the History Kitchen.
Run, run, fast as you can,
You can’t catch me, I’m the gingerbread man!
~ The Gingerbread Man, a fairy tale
No confection symbolizes the holidays quite like gingerbread in its many forms, from edible houses to candy-studded gingerbread men to spiced loaves of cake-like bread. In Medieval England, the term gingerbread simply meant ‘preserved ginger’ and wasn’t applied to the desserts we are familiar with until the 15th century. The term is now broadly used to describe any type of sweet treat that combines ginger with honey, treacle or molasses.
Ginger root was first cultivated in ancient China, where it was commonly used as a medical treatment. From there it spread to Europe via the Silk Road. During the Middle Ages it was favored as a spice for its ability to disguise the taste of preserved meats. Henry VIII is said to have used a ginger concoction in hopes of building a resistance to the plague. Even today we use ginger as an effective remedy for nausea and other stomach ailments. In Sanskrit the root was known as srigavera, which translates to ‘root shaped like a horn’ – a fitting name for ginger’s unusual appearance.
According to Rhonda Massingham Hart’s Making Gingerbread Houses, the first known recipe for gingerbread came from Greece in 2400 BC. Chinese recipes were developed during the 10th century and by the late Middle Ages, Europeans had their own version of gingerbread. The hard cookies, sometimes gilded with gold leaf and shaped like animals, kings and queens, were a staple at Medieval fairs in England, France, Holland and Germany. Queen Elizabeth I is credited with the idea of decorating the cookies in this fashion, after she had some made to resemble the dignitaries visiting her court. Over time some of these festivals came to be known as Gingerbread Fairs, and the gingerbread cookies served there were known as ‘fairings.’ The shapes of the gingerbread changed with the season, including flowers in the spring and birds in the fall. Elaborately decorated gingerbread became synonymous with all things fancy and elegant in England. The gold leaf that was often used to decorate gingerbread cookies led to the popular expression ‘to take the gilt off of gingerbread.’ The carved, white architectural details found on many colonial American seaside homes is sometimes referred to as ‘gingerbread work’.
Gingerbread houses originated in Germany during the 16th century. The elaborate cookie-walled houses, decorated with foil in addition to gold leaf, became associated with Christmas tradition. Their popularity rose when the Brothers Grimm wrote the story of Hansel and Gretel, in which the main characters stumble upon a house made entirely of treats deep in the forest. It is unclear whether or not gingerbread houses were a result of the popular fairy tale, or vice versa.
Recently the record for world’s largest gingerbread house was broken. The previous record was set by the Mall of America in 2006. The new winning gingerbread house, spanning nearly 40,000 cubic feet, was erected at Traditions Golf Club in Bryan, Texas. The house required a building permit and was built much like a traditional house. 4,000 gingerbread bricks were used during its construction. To put that in perspective, a recipe for a house this size would include 1,800 pounds of butter and 1,080 ounces of ground ginger. Sounds more like a gingerbread resort!
Gingerbread arrived in the New World with English colonists. The cookies were sometimes used to sway Virginia voters to favor one candidate over another. The first American cookbook, American Cookery by Amelia Simmons, has recipes for three types of gingerbread including the soft variety baked in loaves:
Soft gingerbread to be baked in pans.
No. 2. Rub three pounds of sugar, two pounds of butter, into four pounds of flour, add 20 eggs, 4 ounces ginger, 4 spoons rosewater, bake as No. 1.
This softer version of gingerbread was more common in America. George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, served her recipe for gingerbread to the Marquis de Lafayette when he visited her Fredericksburg, Virginia home. Since then it was known as Gingerbread Lafayette. The confection was passed down through generations of Washingtons.
Of course I couldn’t explore the history of gingerbread without making a few cookies of my own. There are many tempting varieties, but ultimately I decided to go the traditional route and make gingerbread men. This recipe is slightly adapted from the now out-of-print New York Times Heritage Cookbook. It makes sturdy cookies with a crunchy snap, perfect for building gingerbread house walls (if you’re brave enough to forgo a kit!). I added a touch more ginger to the cookies to give them more flavor. You also might consider adding a splash of rosewater to the dough as a nod to Amelia Simmons! The gingerbread men bake up smooth and flat, the perfect pallet for decorating with royal icing, candies, sugar pearls and sprinkles. If you’d like to learn how to ice the cookies as they appear in the pictures, try my royal icing recipe with this tutorial I wrote up last year on how to decorate cookies with royal icing.
You can uncover more fascinating food history on Tori’s website: The History Kitchen.
Visit The Shiksa blog for a tutorial on how to decorate cookies with royal icing
- ¾ cup unsulphured molasses
- ¾ cup butter
- ¾ cup dark brown sugar
- 4 ½ cups flour, plus more for rolling surface
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp salt
- ½ tsp baking soda
- 3 ½ tsp ground ginger
- 2 tsp cinnamon
- 1 egg, lightly beaten
- Royal icing (optional)
- Sprinkles, cinnamon candies, or any other decorations of your choice (optional)
- In a medium saucepan, heat the molasses to the simmering point. Remove from the heat and stir in the butter until it melts. Stir in the brown sugar. Allow to cool.
- In a large mixing bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, salt, baking soda, ginger and cinnamon. Add the cooled molasses and the egg to the flour mixture and mix very well until a dough forms. You may need to use your hands to really incorporate the wet mixture into the dry mixture.
- Wrap dough in wax or parchment paper and chill for 1-2 hours, or until firm enough to roll.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Transfer chilled dough to a lightly floured rolling surface and roll out the dough to one-quarter inch thickness. Roll out a quarter of the dough at a time.
- Cut cookies with your choice of cookie cutter. I chose a traditional gingerbread man, but you can get creative with any kind of cookie cutter you’d like.
- Transfer cut dough to a baking sheet that has been lightly greased with nonstick cooking spray or lined with a silicone baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees F for 12-15 minutes. The cookies will puff up, but won’t spread much.
- Cool completely on a rack before decorating with royal icing, decorative sprinkles and candies.
You will also need: medium saucepan, large mixing bowl, sifter, wax or parchment paper, rolling pin, cookie cutter(s) of your choice, baking sheet, nonstick cooking spray or silicone baking sheet.
Visit The Shiksa blog for a tutorial on how to decorate cookies with royal icing
Borgobello, Bridget. Texas Lays Claim to the World’s Largest Gingerbread House. N.p., 10 Dec. 2013. Web. 17 Dec. 2013.
Hewitt, Jean. The New York Times Heritage Cookbook. New York: Wings, 1995. Print.
Massingham, Rhonda. Making Gingerbread Houses. Pownal, VT: Storey Communications, 1996. Print.
Sember, Brette. Cookie: A Love Story. US: Sember Resources, 2012.
Staib, Walter; Yun, Molly and Wolkow, Diana. A Sweet Taste of History: More than 100 Elegant Dessert Recipes from America’s Earliest Days. US: Lyons, 2013.
Stellingwerf, Steven. The Gingerbread Book. New York: Rizzoli, 1991.
Meet the Author
Tori Avey is a food writer, recipe developer, and the creator of two cooking websites: The History Kitchen and The Shiksa in the Kitchen. She explores the story behind the food – why we eat what we eat, how the foods of different cultures have evolved, and how yesterday’s food can inspire us in the kitchen today. Tori’s food writing and photography have appeared on the websites of CNN, Bon Appetit, Zabar’s, Williams-Sonoma, Yahoo Shine, LA Weekly and The Huffington Post. Follow Tori on Facebook: Tori Avey or Twitter: @toriavey.
More Gingerbread Fun from PBS
Easy Gingerbread Cookies Recipe
Using butterscotch pudding mix, these cookies are easy to make with kids and fun to decorate from Seattle local station KCTS9!
Whole Grain Gingerbread Pancakes recipe
Make these gingerbread pancakes during the Christmas season or anytime for a breakfast that tastes like dessert from the PBS Food Fresh Tastes blog.
Building and Decorating a Gingerbread House
In this segment from “Craft in America,” Grove Park Inn pastry chefs Robert Alger & Iain Jones build and decorate a gingerbread house based on the President’s Cottage at Grove Park Inn.
Gingerbread House Extravaganza
The Jacksonville Historical Society’s Gingerbread House Extravaganza in Florida turns a church into a winter wonderland as teams build unique gingerbread creations and compete for the event’s greatest honor: the Best in Show Award.
Mini Graham Gingerbread Houses
Keep the holiday spirit going by making these cute Graham cracker gingerbread houses with your child from the PBS Parents Kitchen Explorers blog
Gingerbread French Toast recipe
Watch Chef Matt Stickle of Bite at Hotel Murano in Tacoma, Washington make Gingerbread French Toast.