December 7, 2009
COUNTDOWN to Christmas: Day 18, Mon Dec 07
It may have been introduced to Western Europe by 11th-century crusaders returning from the eastern Mediterranean. Its precise origin is murky, although it is clear that ginger itself originates in Asia.
Gingerbread was a favorite treat at festivals and fairs in medieval Europe—often shaped and decorated to look like flowers, birds, animals or even armor—and several cities in France and England hosted regular “gingerbread fairs” for centuries. Ladies often gave their favorite knights a piece of gingerbread for good luck in a tournament, or superstitiously ate a “gingerbread husband” to improve their chances of landing the real thing.
By 1598, it was popular enough to merit a mention in a Shakespeare play (”An I had but one penny in the world, thou shouldst have it to buy ginger-bread…”). Some even considered it medicine: 16th-century writer John Baret described gingerbread as “A Kinde of cake or paste made to comfort the stomacke.”
Stellingwerf notes that the meaning of the word “gingerbread” has been reshaped over the centuries. In medieval England, it referred to any kind of preserved ginger (borrowing from the Old French term gingebras, which in turn came from the spice’s Latin name, zingebar.) The term became associated with ginger-flavored cakes sometime in the 15th century.
In Germany, gingerbread cookies called Lebkuchen have long been a fixture at street festivals, often in the shape of hearts frosted with sugary messages like “Alles was ich brauch bist du” (All I need is you) or “Du bist einfach super” (You’re really super). Germans might have also invented the concept of making gingerbread houses, probably inspired by the witch’s candy cottage in the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel.
North Americans have been baking gingerbread for more than 200 years—even George Washington’s mother gets credit for one recipe—in shapes that ranged from miniature kings (pre-revolution) to eagles (after independence).
These days gingerbread generally refers to one of two desserts. It can be a dense, ginger-spiced cookie flavored with molasses or honey and cut into fanciful shapes (such as the popular gingerbread man). Or, particularly in the United States, it can describe a dark, moist cake flavored with molasses, ginger and other spices.”
350g plain flour
1-2 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
100g butter or margarine
175g soft light brown sugar
4 tablespoons golden syrup
Makes about 20 biscuits.
Put the flour, ginger and soda into a bowl and rub in the butter.
Add sugar and stir in the syrup and egg to make a firm dough.
Roll out to about 5mm thick and cut out your gingerbread men. If you don't have a gingerbread man cutter then use whatever you have - stars and hearts are just as tasty.
Bake at 190 C /Gas 5 on greased baking trays (spaced out, as they will spread) for 10 to 15 mins until golden brown. Leave to firm up for a couple of minutes before placing on a wire rack to cook. Once cooled, decorate with icing.
Variations: Swap the ginger for cinnamon or a few drops of vanilla essence if you don't like ginger. Swap golden syrup for treacle, if preferred.
Alternative Recipe - Gingerbread Men:
3 cups (390 grams) all purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 cup (113 grams) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup (100 grams) granulated white sugar
1 large egg
2/3 cup (160 ml) unsulphured molasses
Note: To prevent the molasses from sticking to the measuring cup, first spray the cup with a non stick vegetable spray (like Pam).
2 cups (230 grams) confectioners sugar (icing or powdered sugar), sifted
1/2 cup (113 grams) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 tablespoons milk or light cream
Assorted food colors (if desired)
In a large bowl, sift or whisk together the flour, salt, baking soda, and spices. Set aside.
In the bowl of your electric mixer (or with a hand mixer), with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the egg and molasses and beat until well combined. Gradually add the flour mixture beating until incorporated.
Divide the dough in half, and wrap each half in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least two hours or overnight.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (177 degrees C) and place rack in center of oven. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside while you roll out the dough.
On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough to a thickness of about 1/4 inch. Use a gingerbread cutter to cut out the cookies. With an offset spatula lift the cut out cookies onto the baking sheet, placing the cookies about 1 inch (2.54 cm) apart. If you are hanging the cookies or using as gift tags, make a hole at the top of the cookies with a straw or end of a wooden skewer.
Bake for about 8 - 12 minutes depending on the size of the cookies. Small ones will take about 8 minutes, larger cookies will take about 12 minutes. They are done when they are firm and the edges are just beginning to brown.
Remove the cookies from the oven and cool on the baking sheet for about 1 minute. When they are firm enough to move, transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
If desired, you can press raisins, currants, or candies into the dough for eyes and buttons while the cookies are still warm. Otherwise, confectioners frosting can be used to decorate the cookies. You can also use the icing as a glue to attach candies, raisins, and sprinkles.
Confectioners Frosting: In an electric mixer (or with a hand mixer), cream the butter until smooth and well blended. Add the vanilla extract. With the mixer on low speed, gradually beat in the sugar. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and beater. Add the milk and beat on high speed until frosting is light and fluffy (about 3-4 minutes). Add a little more milk if too dry. Place the frosting in a pastry bag fitted with a decorative tip and decorate the gingerbread men as desired.
Tint portions of frosting with desired food color. Makes about 3 dozen cookies depending on the size of cookie cutter used. Store in an airtight container.