There is no scent, nor any taste, that evokes Christmas quite like gingerbread. Along with apples and cinnamon, sugarplum fairies, candy canes and stockings hung by the fire, gingerbread men, cakes and flavored lattes bring holiday cheer to the family and mingle in the air beside the scents of roasted chestnuts and crackling wood in the fireplace.
So with winter rearing its head, and the east coast of the United States snowed in, it’s time to get cooking, right? But slow down. What is the history of gingerbread? How, exactly, did a dessert made with ginger —not the most obvious ingredient for sweets— become associated with Christmas?
The first recorded appearance of a bread baked with ginger came at a specific date, and through the hands of a specific person: in 992, with the Armenian monk Gregory of Nicopolis. Spice breads or spice cakes, featuring what we tend to think of as savory spices (including pepper) were used in ancient Rome, and likely before. Spices served as preservatives, provided flavor but also were used to mask the flavor of less-than-fresh ingredients. Ginger was new to the West, or so the story goes, until Brother Gregory moved from Armenia to France, staying at a monastery near Pithiviers, where he taught his brother monks how to bake gingerbread. This story may be apocryphal, but it as good an origin tale as any, and more specific than most.
From France gingerbread made its way to farther points in Europe and Scandinavia through the Middle Age. By the 15th century there was a German gingerbread guild to monitor quality and production, and the Vadstena Abbey in Sweden records, in 1444, the prescription of gingerbread as a medicinal digestive aid. It is a small step from bread to biscuits, but the first recorded gingerbread cookies come in 1793, in the town of Market Drayton in Shropshire, England. It is unclear who began to shake gingerbread biscuits like little men, but it has been a Christmas tradition in Germany and elsewhere for centuries, and is recorded as a popular practice as early as the 16th century—gingerbread men are recorded as appearing at the court of Elizabeth I of England, who had some made as edible portraits of some of her guests. From there, the only limit was one’s imagination—the world record gingerbread man weighed in at 1308 pounds, 8 ounces and was 20 feet tall. Of course, it was made in Texas.
When it comes time for me to dive into my own gingerbread making extravaganza, I decided on its two most common forms: human-shaped cookies and a cake-like loaf. There is very little ginger in gingerbread—it’s the equivalent of cinnamon, in the sense that a little goes a long way, but offers a nice aroma and bite. But it is a far cry from actually tasting of ginger. The recipe I used for cookies featured just 2 teaspoons of ground ginger against a pound of flour. The process was as foolproof as possible, making it good to share with children. It is essentially blending flour, butter, egg, sugar (or molasses, the more traditional sweetener) with some bicarbonate of soda to make it rise, and two parts ginger to one part cinnamon for flavor. Lay it on your cookie sheet in whatever shape you like and bake. Decorating with icing is fun, but I like them straight up, as I imagine our old friend, Brother Gregory, might have served them. But what, exactly, might Brother Gregory have made? The oldest gingerbread recipe I could fine noted that “gingerbread” as a term was largely synonymous with “preserved ginger” in any form, and that early uses were likely no more elaborate than pressing together ginger with breadcrumbs and almonds bound together with honey. This dough, which did not require cooking, was pressed into molds. The oldest recipe I found was from the 15th century, and is short enough to quote in full (thanks to theoldfoodie.com for finding the recipe):
Take a quart of honey and sethe it and skime it clene; take Safroun, pouder Pepir and throw theron; take gratyd Brede and make it so chargeant that it wol be y-lechyd; then take pouder canelle and straw ther-on y-now; then make it square, lyke as thou wolt leche yt; take when tho lechyst hyt, an caste Box leves a -bowyn, y-stykyd ther-on, on clowys. An if thou wold have it Red, colour it with Saunderys y-now.
From: Austin, Thomas. Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery-Books. Harleian MS. 279 & Harl. MS. 4016, with extracts from Ashmole MS. 1429, Laud MS. 553, & Douce MS 55. London: for The Early English Text Society by N. Trübner & Co., 1888.
As authentic as this may be, it didn’t sound that delicious (or pronounceable). I instead made a “gingerbread snacking cake.” What I like about both gingerbread cookies and cakes is that, unlike so many dishes in this series, this one is extremely difficult to get wrong. It’s basically a cake with a variety of flavors, not just ginger (clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, molasses, brown sugar), which really make it more of a spice cake, and therefore harkening back to a far older tradition than Brother Gregory’s 10th century gingerbread. But that rolling aroma of baking spices, with ginger at the fore but flanked by other spices we tend to associate with savory dishes, is the perfect complement to Christmas, and simple enough that it can be the first recipe you prepare with your little ones.