Know Your Sweets: Gingerbread
"And I had but one penny in the world, thou should'st have it to buy gingerbread."—Shakespeare, Love's Labor's Lost, 1598
Perhaps the only food that often appears shaped like a tiny, edible man or a miniature house, gingerbread's soft texture and warm blend of holiday spices makes it a centuries-old favorite in any form.
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While gingerbread is made into a wide variety of shapes, gingerbread men and gingerbread houses hold sway as the two most festive forms. The first gingerbread men are credited to Queen Elizabeth I, who would serve them to visiting dignitaries year round (without those infamous gumdrop buttons).
Thanks in large part to Hansel and Gretel, gingerbread houses (lebkuchenhaeusle, literally: house to nibble at) began popping up all over Germany after Hans Christian Andersen's classic fable made mention of a witch living in a house made of gingerbread. The country has been combining gingerbread and icing for well over 400 years, though, in the form of lebkuchen—the thin cookie-like German version of gingerbread—which is often decorated with sweet messages for friends and loved ones.
Gingerbread is one of the oldest and most history-rich of all desserts, with volumes and volumes having been written on not only its storied past, but cultural influence. Until the 15th Century, the term "gingerbread" in Europe was used to describe preserved or candied ginger, not the soft cookies and cakes as we know them today. However, Egyptians and Greeks have been baking ginger spice cakes for ceremonies and celebrations since long before the 11th Century.
When Crusaders returned from the Middle East and Asia with spices, Europe began to more readily embrace gingerbread in its softer, baked good form. The Armenian monk Gregory of Nicopolis is credited with being the first to educate French priests about a gingerbread creation when he moved to Bondaroy, France in 992. In its earliest recipes, gingerbread consisted of ginger, ground almonds, breadcrumbs, rosewater, and sugar. The cookie-paste was pressed into molds, which were often shaped like kings, queens, dignitaries, or religious symbols and washed with a sugary icing.
Gingerbread also was quickly adopted as an aid for indigestion, as well as for decorative purposes on trees and windows throughout towns across Europe. During the Middle Ages, towns hosted "gingerbread fairs" and ladies would often give decorated gingerbread to their favorite knights for good luck (and to try and woo the handsome lad of their choice).
Across Europe in the seventeenth century, gingerbread bakers—a profession that became recognized in and of itself—had the exclusive right to make it, except during Christmas and Easter.
Gingerbread came to the United States with the very first settlers (George Washington's mother even had her own recipe!) but was truly embraced as a holiday treat when German and Northern European colonists arrived. Today, it's still not uncommon to see the Scandinavian take on gingerbread, pepparkaker, on holiday cookie trays across the Midwest.
Spotlight Region: Shropshire, England
While a recipe for gingerbrede, a soft version of gingerbread akin to a cake, arrived in the United Kingdom with the Crusades around 1390, Shropshire quickly grabbed hold of England's gingerbread crown. The small market town of Market Drayton, which is located close to the Welsh border, claims to be the "Home of Gingerbread" in the United Kingdom, with several medium-size cookie producers and a history of gingerbread production dating back to 1793.
The world's only museum dedicated to gingerbread is located in an old granary in Toruń, Poland, where area bakers have been known for crafting some of the finest gingerbread in the world since the Middle Ages. Visitors are able to learn not only about the history of this holiday treat and see some of the oldest gingerbread molds in the world, but experience the painstaking process of creating gingerbread by government-approved bakers. Just to add a bit more color, there is a "Gingerbread Witch" who makes several guest appearances over the course of the tour, purportedly in an attempt to deter greedy children from eating too much gingerbread (a la Hansel and Gretel).