Updated: May 14
What is a Gingerbread House?
Ask Wiki and get a prompt reply: A gingerbread house is a novelty confectionery shaped like a building that is made of cookie dough, cut and baked into appropriate components like walls and roofing. The usual material is crisp ginger biscuit made of gingerbread – the Ginger Nut. Another type of model-making with gingerbread uses a boiled dough that can be moulded like clay to form edible statuettes or other decorations. These houses, covered with a variety of candies and icing, are popular Christmas decorations.
Then again, as they say - To Define , is to Limit. So let's cut the Science and delve right into the romance of the holiday season , for no confection symbolises it quite like the way the Gingerbread House does, in its many forms and edible avatars. From houses , castles and Fairytale lands to candy-studded gingerbread men, these spiced loaves of cake-like bread are etched in memory, and in the season's 'search history' , for that is how popular they are for the Western Civilisation. But surprising as it may sound, the Ginger root was first cultivated right here in the East!
The history of ginger is thought to date back over 2000 years, and it’s inextricably linked to its medicinal purposes, especially as a stomach settler. The ancient Chinese and Indians used ginger as a tonic root for many ailments. Chinese have described ginger as a ‘yang tonifying herb’, that warms up the body. Ancient Hawaiians used to drink juice from the stems of flower heads after hiking, and the ancient Greeks used to eat it wrapped in bread as a post-dinner digestive aid. It was also used to bless Austronesian ships, and for healing rituals. Records of honey cakes can be traced to ancient Rome. Food historians ratify that ginger has been seasoning foodstuffs and drinks since antiquity. It found myriad uses as it travelled the Silk Route for Spice Trade and was one of the first spices to be exported from Asia , as it slowly spread its pseudo-stems to Europe via the Silk Road, for world dominance; which it achieved by 2021 , given the spate of respiratory illnesses that seized the globe during the Covid pandemic. But before the turmoil in our healthcare systems came about, and before 'turmeric lattes' , holy basil 'kadas' and ginger-teas became the done thing world over , this lesser known Ginger root had its own share of history to carve, which it rightly did -in cookie instead.
In Medieval England, the term gingerbread simply meant preserved ginger and was not 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.
During the Middle Ages it was favoured 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 gingers unusual appearance.
The first known recipe for gingerbread apparently 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.
The German Connection:
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 & The New World Order:
Gingerbread arrived in the New World with English colonists. The cookies were sometimes used to sway Virginia voters to favour 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. The 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 one cannot explore the history of gingerbread without making a few cookies of one's own. There are many tempting varieties, but ultimately we 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 flavour. You also might consider adding a splash of rosewater to the dough like Amelia Simmons. The gingerbread men bake up smooth and flat, the perfect pallet for decorating with royal icing, candies, sugar pearls and sprinkles.
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.
Decorate Cookies with Royal icing.
Tips/Techniques 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.
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.
Tory Avey , blog writer from toryavey.com
Web: The Amazing History & Health Benefits of Ginger- Alicia Drewnicki