Gingerbread, Original King of Christmas Cookies
Edited by Gael Stirler. Originally published December 2006.
(Get the kids and share this story about historic Christmas treats; then, have fun baking cookies or making a gingerbread house of your own.)
Cakes of all shapes and sizes (including smaller items such as cookies) have been part of festive holiday rituals long before Christmas. Ancient cooks prepared sweet baked goods to mark significant occasions. Many of these recipes and ingredients (cinnamon, ginger, black pepper, almonds, dried fruits, etc.) were introduced to Europe in the Middle Ages. They were highly prized and quickly incorporated into European baked goods. Christmas cookies, as we know them today, trace their roots to these Medieval European recipes. Dutch and German settlers introduced cookie cutters, decorative molds, and festive holiday decorations to America. German lebkuchen (gingerbread) was probably the first cake/cookie traditionally associated with Christmas.
"By the 1500s, Christmas cookies had caught on all over Europe. German families baked up pans of lebkuchen and buttery spritz cookies. Papparkakor (spicy ginger and black-pepper delights) were favorites in Sweden; the Norwegians made krumkake (thin lemon and cardamom-scented wafers). The earliest Christmas cookies in America came ashore with the Dutch in the early 1600s."
—"America's Best Holiday Cookies," McCall's [magazine], December 1994 (p. 85)
When I was a child we decorated molded Santa cookies with raisins, coconut and sugar. In Holland, Speculaas cookies are decorated with slivered almonds. In Germany, lebkuchen (honey gingerbread cookies) are iced in bitter dark chocolate and decorated with nuts. Dutch and German gingerbread cookies are sweetened with honey, in contrast to the cookies made in England and the United States which are made from sugar and molasses. The earliest mention of sweet cakes is from the 2500 BC in Mesopotamia, and honey cakes are mentioned first around 200 BC though they probably were around much longer. To honor Wotan, King of the Nordic gods, the ancient Norse made cookies shaped like small springing horses called springerle. The earliest gingerbread cookies were made after ginger and cinnamon, brought home from Palestine by Crusaders, became common in the manors and monasteries of Europe. The first mention of gingerbread comes from a German monastery that was famous for its beeswax candles. The monks mixed honey with spices and nut flour to form a paste and spread it on thin wafers made from wheat flour and water to make a nurishing food for the sick and injured. To this day in Germany, the traditional lebkuchen is made from honey and baked on a wafer.
National Gingerbread House Competition entry
Gingerbread, which was eaten raw at first, could be kept longer if it was mixed with flour and baked. Its clay-like texture made it easy to mold and the monks took advantage of this to teach the children about the saints. Over the centuries many saints and other symbols have become associated with gingerbread, not the least of which is Santa Claus.
Cookies were even use for advertising and political purposes in the middle ages. "In 1487, Emperor Frederick III attempted to increase his public approval rating by having 4000 gingerbread cookies of his image made to give to the children of his domain." Gingerbread bakers formed their own guild in 1415 and the practioners not only had to master the craft of baking but wood carving, too. One wealthy 15th century baker in Prague listed over 500 carved cookie molds in his personal effects! —according to Hobi cookie mold's website.
A mold by Olda Kvapil from
Horice, Czech Republic
Sinterklaas, or St. Nicholas, cookies are still made regularly at Christmas time from Sweden to the Czech Republic. It is still a treasured tradition for those of Dutch ancestory in the USA and Canada. The special gingerbread cookies that are handpressed into wooden molds are called speculaas, meaning "mirror," because they produce a mirror image of the mold. In Switzerland molded cookies are still called springerle and the molds are often carved on rolling pins to create many cookies at once.
According to Americana Magazine, "The first gingerbread [portrait] is credited to the court of Queen Elizabeth I, who favored important visitors...with charming gingerbread likenesses of themselves." Even though gingerbread houses and gingerbread men probably began in Germany, they were adopted enthusiasically by the English and became a popular Christmas tradition that crossed the pond to America where gingerbread house building really took hold. One hundred years ago it was the custom in the Dutch areas of Pennsylvania to make tall-molded gingerbread men decorated with white icing to stand smiling in the front windows of well-to-do homes. Elaborate gingerbread houses, castles, villages, trains, sleighs, and boats are used to adorn not only American homes but public spaces in shopping centers and hotels, too. The National Gingerbread House Competition is held annually in Ashville, NC. You can view a one or two minute video about it here. The competition is also aired on the Food Network. In Germany they are called hexenhaus, or witch house, after the house in the Grimm's tale, Hansel and Gretel.
Handfasting Heart Speculaas
from the Czech Republic
Before occasion cards became popular, cookies were used as tokens to symbolize friendship and love. Gingerbread hearts, like these in an outdoor German Christmas market and this matrimonial or handfasting cookie, are made to annouce a special day or to communicate a special sentiment. During the middle ages people believed that there were magical powers in cookies imprinted with certain images; a pig for luck, a dog for fidelity, a hare for fertility, a heart for love, etc.
"I love you" hearts at a
Nurmberg Christmas fair.
Gene Wilson is America's best known cookie mold carver. He personally makes over 100 different kinds of molds and no two molds of any kind are the same. His Sinter Klaas molds make cookies 7 to 9.5 inches tall! Wilson carves his molds from beechwood and other hard woods with an electric router. Czech artist Olda Kvapil creates intricately detailed wooden molds for Christmas and other occasions with hand carving tools. A gallery of these pieces, including bawdy cookie molds, can be seen at Staroces Keperniky, an interesting site even though it is all in Czech.
St. Nicholas riding a horse
by Gene Wilson.
Sinterklaas (molded gingerbread cookies)
If you don't have a cookie mold—look around, you may have a toy, a decoration, or carved dish that will make a lovely mold. You can also cut a Santa shape out of cardboard and use it as a template to make flat cookies that can be decorated with icing.
1/3 cup packed dark-brown sugar
1 tablespoon milk
1 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon each powdered cloves and cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon each nutmeg and powdered ginger
1 pinch salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon chopped blanched almonds
1 tablespoon minced candied fruit
5 tablespoons real butter
more large slivers of blanched almonds, not chopped (optional for decoration)
In a medium mixing bowl, combine the brown sugar and milk, and stir until smooth. Add the flour, spices, salt, baking powder, almonds, and fruit. Cut in the butter with a pastry blender. Chill. Preheat oven to 350° F. If using a wooden speculaas mold, dust it with cornstarch, covering every bit of carving. Roll out the dough and cut a piece a little larger than the mold. Firmly press the dough into the mold, then run a sharp knife along the edges of the design; remove the excess. Gently lift the dough or tap it onto a greased cookie sheet. Press almond slivers onto the cookies wherever they fit into the design. To make cutout cookies, roll the dough about 1/4 inch thick and cut with cookie cutters. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes. Let them cool and crisp on a rack.
Lebkuchen (Honey Gingerbread for making a Hexenhaus)
The traditional lebkuchen (litterally sweet cake) is made with potash and hartshorn salt for levening which smells bad during cooking but leaves no odd flavor in the cookies. You can substitute 3 tsp double-acting baking powder . You can get the packaged Lebkuchen spice from Amazon.com or you can substitute a mixture of 1 Tbsp Cinnamon, 1 tsp Cloves, 2 tsp Allspice, 1 tsp Black Pepper, and 2 tsp Nutmeg.
Decorating a hexenhaus
with royal icing
700 g (1 lb 9 oz) honey
200 g (1 cup) sugar
200 g (7/8 cup or 1-3/4 sticks) butter
2 (large) eggs
Grated zest of an organic lemon
2 Tbsp cocoa powder
2 packets of Lebkuchen spice
1 kg (about 9 cups) flour
5-6 Tbsp milk
10 g (2 tsp) hartshorn salt (ammonium carbonate)
4 g (1 tsp) potash
- In a bowl set over a pan of simmering water, warm the honey, sugar, and butter together, stirring often until the sugar has dissolved. Allow the mixture to cool to the touch.
- Add the eggs, lemon zest, cocoa powder, and spices and mix with a whisk. Add the flour to the mixture and blend thoroughly. You will need to work it with your hands since it should be a very stiff dough.
- In a cup, dissolve the hartshorn salt in 3-4 Tbsp milk and the potash in the remaining milk. Knead the mixtures into the dough.
- Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and let stand for 24 hours at room temperature. The next day, knead the dough quickly and roll it out on a floured board to a thickness of 1/4 inch. Thin, crisp cookie pieces make stronger houses than thick, soft ones.
- Make wax paper patterns ahead of time for each part of the house. Lay the pattern piece on the rolled dough and cut around them with a sharp knife. Here is a Printable Pattern for a Hexenhaus from AllRecipes.com.
- Make porches, trees, men, women, and animals with excess dough.
- Place all the parts on baking sheets lined with parchment paper and bake in a preheated 180° C (350° F) oven for 5-10 minutes. Since they have different shapes, the cooking time will vary quite a bit. Keep an eye on the pieces to make sure that they don't burn.
Royal icing is very white and sets up hard and crisp. If thinned with a little water it will make a shiny, opaque-white glaze. You can tint royal icing with paste food coloring, liquid food coloring tends to thin it down too much.
2 egg whites
300 g (3 cups) powdered sugar
6 drops lemon juice (optional)
- Beat the egg whites with an electric mixer until stiff. Do not overbeat.
- Add the sifted icing sugar and beat until it becomes thick and smooth
- Mix in the lemon juice.
- Cover with plastic wrap. The icing will stay soft for several days if kept air tight.
Tips for making a successful Gingerbread House
- Make the dough one day ahead and let it chill overnight.
- Roll out the dough an even 1/4 inch (2 mm) thickness by placing two thin dowels on each side of the dough. Another trick is to use 1/4 inch (2mm) thick collars on the ends of your rolling pin.
- Transfer the rolled dough to a sheet of parchment paper on a cookie sheet before cutting out the large pieces of the house. They could become deformed if you try to move them after cutting.
- Check the oven temperature with an oven thermometer rather than trusting the dial.
- Cut doors and windows from the still-warm, freshly-baked pieces before removing them from the cookie sheet. This prevents them from deforming during cooking.
- Allow the baked gingerbread house pieces to dry out overnight before assembling. Rasp off any irregular edges with a nutmeg grater.
- Use royal icing not buttercream to assemble the house or the roof will slide off.
- Use a thin glaze of royal icing on the roof and walls for snow. Use thick royal icing for joining and making icicles and other textured effects.
- Use small cookies and candies to decorate.
- Less is more. Make some details with piped colored icing rather than too many cookies and candies.
- Place little gifts or chocolate coins inside the house for surprises.