The History of Gingerbread

by Tarla

Gingerbread has been baked in Europe for centuries. In some places, it was a soft, delicately spiced cake; in others, a crisp, flat cookie, and in others, warm, thick, steamy-dark squares of "bread," sometimes served with a pitcher of lemon sauce or whipped cream. It was sometimes light, sometimes dark, sometimes sweet, sometimes spicy, but it was almost always cut into shapes such as men, women, stars or animals, and colorfully decorated or stamped with a mold and dusted with white sugar to make the impression visible.

The term may be imprecise because in Medieval England gingerbread meant simply "preserved ginger" and was a corruption of the Old French gingebras, derived from the Latin name of the spice, Zingebar. It was only in the fifteenth century that the term came to be applied to a kind of cake made with treacle and flavored with ginger.

Ginger was also discovered to have a preservative effect when added to pastries and bread, and this probably led to the development of recipes for ginger cakes, cookies, Australian gingernuts and flavored breads.

The manufacture of gingerbread appears to have spread throughout Western Europe at the end of the eleventh century, possibly introduced by crusaders returning from wars in the Eastern Mediterranean. From its very beginning gingerbread has been a fairground delicacy. Many fairs became known as "gingerbread fairs" and gingerbread items took on the alternative name in England of "fairings" which had the generic meaning of a gift given at, or brought from, a fair. Certain shapes were associated with different seasons: buttons and flowers were found at Easter fairs, and animals and birds were a feature in Autumn. There is also more than one village tradition in England requiring unmarried women to eat gingerbread "husbands" at the fair if they are to stand a good chance of meeting a real husband. Of course, you could always visit Elizabeth Botham & Sons, a family-run craft bakery on the North Yorkshire coast of England, and sample some authentic pastries.

If you lived in London in 1614, your family would have gone to the Bartholomew Fair on August 24. Of the special cakes prepared for holidays and feasts in England, many were gingerbread. If a fair honored a town's patron saint, e.g., St. Bartholomew, the saint's image might have been stamped (and even gilded) into the gingerbread you would buy. If the fair were on a special market day, the cakes would probably be decorated with an edible icing to look like men, animals, valentine hearts or flowers. Sometimes the dough was simply cut into round "snaps."

Gingerbread-making was eventually recognized as a profession in itself. In the seventeenth century, gingerbread bakers had the exclusive right to make it, except at Christmas and Easter. Their street cries could be heard well into the nineteenth century, but in 1951, writer Henry Mayhew sadly recorded that "there are only two men in London who make their own gingerbread nuts for sale in the streets."

Of all the countries in Europe, Germany is the one with the longest and strongest tradition of flat, shaped gingerbreads. At every autumn fair in Germany, and in the surrounding lands where the Germanic influence is strong, there are rows of stalls filled with hundreds of gingerbread hearts, decorated with white and colored icing and tied with ribbons.

If you lived in Nuremberg in 1614, your family would have gone to the Christkindlmarkt in December. You would have bought carved Christmas decorations, special sausages, and the famous Nuremberg Lebkuchen flavored with ginger, which you probably would have thought was the best in the world. Nuremberg gingerbread was not baked in the home, but was the preserve of an exclusive Guild of master bakers, the Lebkuchler.

Nuremberg became known as the "gingerbread capital" of the world and as with any major trading center, many fine craftsmen were attracted to the town. Sculptors, painters, woodcarvers and goldsmiths all contributed to the most beautiful gingerbread cakes in Europe. Gifted craftsmen carved intricate wooden molds, artists assisted with decoration in frosting or gold paint. Incredibly fancy hearts, angels, wreaths and other festive shapes were sold at fairs, carnivals and markets.

Lebkuchen are made throughout Germany and large pieces of lebkuchen are used to build Hexenhaeusle ("witches' houses," from the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel, also called Lebkuchenhaeusel and Knusperhaeuschen—"houses for nibbling at").

Nuremberg merchants, in fact, were so well known for their spices that they had the nickname "pepper sacks." From early on, Nuremberg's Lebkuchen packed into one recipe all the variety of flavorings available to its bakers—cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, white pepper, anise and ginger.

The traditions in France were closer to the German than the English ones, with noteworthy recipes for pain d'epices coming from Dijon, Reims and Paris. In 1571, French bakers of pain d'epices even won the right to their own guild, or professional organization, separate from the other pastry cooks and bakers. In Paris a gingerbread fair was held from the eleventh century until the nineteenth century at an abbey on the site of the present St. Antoine Hospital, where monks sold gingerbread cut into the shape of pigs.

During the nineteenth century, gingerbread was both modernized and romanticized. When the Grimm brothers collected volumes of German fairy tales they found one about Hansel and Gretel, two children who, abandoned in the woods by destitute parents, discovered a house made of bread, cake and candies. By the end of the century the composer Englebert Humperdink wrote an opera about the boy and the girl and the gingerbread house.

At Christmas, gingerbread makes its most impressive appearance. The German practice of making lebkuchen houses never caught on in Britain in the same way as it did in North America, and it is here still that the most extraordinary creations are found. Elaborate Victorian houses, heavy with candies and sugar icicles, vie in competition with the Hansel and Gretel houses, more richly decorated and ornamented than most children could imagine in their wildest dreams.

Gingerbread making in North America has its origins in the traditions of the many settlers from all parts of Northern Europe who brought with them family recipes and customs. By the nineteenth century, America had been baking gingerbread for decades.

American recipes usually called for fewer spices than their European counterparts, but often made use of ingredients that were only available regionally. Maple syrup gingerbreads were made in New England, and in the South sorghum molasses was used.

Regional variations began occurring as more people arrived. In Pennsylvania, the influence of German cooking was great and many traditional Germany gingerbreads reappeared in this area, especially at Christmas time.

The North and Midwest of America welcomed the Northern and Middle Europeans. At Christmas it is still very common in the midwest to have Scandinavian cookies like Pepparkaker or Lebkuchen. Often one can find wives holding "coffee kolaches" (coffee mornings) at which European ginger cakes still reign.

Nowhere in the world is there a greater repertoire of gingerbread recipes than in America —there are so many variations in taste, form and presentation. With the rich choice of ingredients, baking aids and decorative items the imaginative cook can create the most spectacular gingerbread houses and centerpieces ever.


Three Ginger Cookies

1 stick unsalted butter, soft
1/2 cup dark brown sugar (packed)
1 Tbsp. fresh ginger, peeled and finely minced
1/2 tsp. vanilla
1 Tbsp. ground ginger
1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp. baking soda
pinch salt
3-4 pieces crystallized ginger, cut into small pieces

Cream the butter, sugar and fresh ginger together until smooth. Add vanilla. Mix ginger, flour, baking soda and salt together. Add dry ingredients to butter mixture just to combine. Form dough into log about 2" square, wrap in plastic wrap and chill until firm - about 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 350 F. Slice log into 1/4" slices, top each with a sliver of crystallized ginger pressed into the center. Bake until lightly golden—8 to 10 minutes. Remove to a rack to cool completely.

Makes: 30 cookies

Ginger: A Most Ancient Root

All ginger comes from a strange, twisted rhizome called ginger root. The thick root is sometimes known as the "hand," because it can look like a fat hand with strange fingers. This root is the hot, pungent spice— ginger—that has been known from ancient times.

The generic name for ginger comes from the Sanskrit—sringavera—meaning "root shaped like a horn" (strictly it is a rhizome) because of its passing resemblance to an animal horn. The spice originated in Asia, though now it is grown mostly in Jamaica. The ancient Chinese used it as a medical treatment; the Romans used it extensively to flavor their foods and taxed it heavily—it almost certainly came overland from India—and the Japanese still use pink pickled ginger, called gari, as the familiar condiment for sushi.

The widespread passion for spices in Medieval Europe (partly to cover up the taste of meats preserved through the winter without the benefits of refrigeration) included ginger, and the spice merchants took advantage of this by charging high prices. Ginger was the second most highly traded spice after pepper.

Types of Ginger

Fresh - "Fresh" is something of a misnomer as even the newly harvested root is dried slightly in the sun before packing for sale. At its peak, in January and February the pale golden sweet flesh is low in fiber and medium hot.

The "hand" should be plump, firm and not too fibrous. The taste is mild and less "spicy" or "hot" than that of the ground spice. To use, fresh ginger is peeled for use in baked goods but left unpeeled if young and moist and used in savory dishes, i.e. Chinese stir-fries such as spicy three-pepper sesame beef. The root may be pickled in vinegar, canned, crystallized or preserved in syrup.

Fresh rhizomes are best refrigerated, wrapped in paper towels, in tightly closed plastic bags, where they will keep for several weeks.

Dried - This is the unskinned rhizome which is washed and dried in the sun.

Ground or powdered - This is ground from gingerroot. It is used in sweet preparations such as cookies, cakes and puddings. It is best to buy small amounts of good quality ground ginger, as the volatile essential oil responsible for the flavor is easily lost in the air. round should never be substituted in recipes calling for fresh.


Halibut with Soy and Ginger Marinade Baked in Parchment

Soy Ginger Marinade:

1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 tsp. minced garlic
1 Tbsp. minced fresh ginger

4 filets of halibut
1-2 Tbsp. butter
1/2 lb. fresh shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and thinly sliced
1/2 lb. oyster mushrooms, torn into pieces
1/2 lb. domestic mushrooms, thinly sliced
2 Tbsp. minced fresh ginger
2 Tbsp. peeled and minced garlic
salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
2 tsp. jalapeño chili pepper, minced
6 scallions, green tops only, cut into thin threads
4 Tbsp. soft butter
1 Tbsp. toasted sesame seeds

Mix soy ginger marinade ingredients together, pour over fish and marinate for 10 minutes. Heat butter in pan, add mushrooms and sauté until mushrooms begin to become crisp. Add ginger and garlic; cook another minute. Stir in chili pepper; add salt and pepper to taste. Cool. Place baking sheet in oven and preheat to 425 F.

Lay out 4 pieces of parchment about 18" long; divide fish among parchment (reserve the marinade and bring to a boil to save for later use), top with one quarter of mushrooms and one quarter of scallion greens; dot with butter and close packages.

Place packages on hot baking sheet and bake 6-8 minutes, depending upon thickness of fish. Divide packages among 4 plates, cut open, and sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds. Pass marinade separately.

Makes: 4 servings

Tarla Fallgatter is a well-known Orange County caterer, chef, teacher, restaurant consultant and kitchen tool manufacturer. She trained at Paris' Cordon Bleu, La Varenne, and École Lenotre cooking schools, and was the first foreign woman to cook in the kitchens of Maxim's. She has traveled to over 60 countries throughout the world "sampling" the local cuisine. Tarla markets her "Tarla" all-copper rolling pin in fine cookware shops nationwide. She can be reached at

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