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Interesting Facts about Gingerbread
Gingerbread is a sweet food-product flavored with ginger and typically using honey or molasses rather than just sugar. Gingerbread foods vary, ranging from a soft, moist loaf cake to something close to a ginger biscuit. The different types likely share a common origin.
Originally, the term gingerbread referred to preserved ginger. It then referred to a confection made with honey and spices. Gingerbread is often used to translate the French term pain d’épices (literally “spice bread”) or the German term Lebkuchen or Pfefferkuchen (pepperbread, literally: pepper cake). The term Lebkuchen is unspecified in the German language. It can mean Leben (life) or Laib (loaf), while the last term comes from the wide range of spices used in this product.
Gingerbread was brought to Europe in 992 by the Armenian monk Gregory of Nicopolis (Gregory Makar) (Grégoire de Nicopolis). He left Nicopolis Pompeii, to live in Bondaroy (France), near the town of Pithiviers. He stayed there seven years, and taught gingerbread baking to French Christians. He died in 999.
During the 13th century, gingerbread was brought to Sweden by German immigrants. In 15th century Germany, a gingerbread guild controlled production. Early references from the Vadstena Abbey show how the Swedish nuns were baking gingerbread to ease indigestion in 1444. It was the custom to bake white biscuits and paint them as window decorations.
The first documented trade of gingerbread biscuits dates to the 17th century, where they were sold in monasteries, pharmacies and town square farmers’ markets. In Medieval England gingerbread was thought to have medicinal properties. One hundred years later the town of Market Drayton in Shropshire, UK became known for its gingerbread, as is proudly displayed on their town’s welcome sign. The first recorded mention of gingerbread being baked in the town dates back to 1793; however, it was probably made earlier, as ginger was stocked in high street businesses from the 1640s. Gingerbread became widely available in the 18th century.
In England, gingerbread may refer to a cake, or a type of cookie/biscuit made with ginger. In the biscuit form, it commonly takes the form of a gingerbread man. Gingerbread men were first attributed to Queen Elizabeth I, who allegedly served the figurines to foreign dignitaries. Today, however, they are generally served around Christmas.
Parkin is a form soft gingerbread cake made with oatmeal and treacle which is popular in northern England.
In the United States, this form of gingerbread is sometimes called “gingerbread cake” or “ginger cake” to distinguish it from the harder forms. French pain d’épices is somewhat similar, though generally slightly drier, and involves honey rather than treacle. Original French gingerbread did not contain ginger.
In Germany gingerbread is made in two forms: a soft form called Lebkuchen and a harder form, particularly associated with carnivals and street markets such as the Christmas markets that occur in many German towns. The hard gingerbread is made in decorative shapes, which are then further decorated with sweets and icing. The tradition of cutting gingerbread into shapes takes many other forms, and exists in many countries, a well-known example being the gingerbread man. Traditionally, these were dunked in port wine.
In the Nordic countries, the most popular form of ginger confection is the pepperkaker (Norwegian), pepparkakor (Swedish), brunkager (Danish), piparkökur (Icelandic), piparkakut (Finnish) and in the Baltic countries piparkūkas (Latvian) or piparkoogid (Estonian). They are thin, very brittle cookies / biscuits that are particularly associated with the extended Christmas period. In Norway and Sweden, pepperkaker/pepparkakor are also used as window decorations, the pepperkaker/pepparkakor are then a little thicker than usual and decorated with glaze and candy. Many families bake pepperkaker/pepparkakor/brunkager as a tradition with their kids. In English, pepperkaker/pepparkakor/brunkager would be referred to as ginger biscuits rather than gingerbread.
In Switzerland, a gingerbread confection known as “biber” is typically a three-quarter inch thick rectangular gingerbread cake with a marzipan filling. Biber are famously from the cantons of Appenzell or St. Gallen and respective biber are artfully adorned with images of the Appenzell bear or the St. Gallen cathedral by engraving or icing.
In the Netherlands and Belgium, a soft and crumbly gingerbread called Peperkoek, Kruidkoek or Ontbijtkoek is popularly served at breakfast time or during the day, thickly sliced and often with butter on top.
In Poland, gingerbreads are known as pierniki (singular, piernik). The most famous are called Toruń gingerbread (piernik toruński), a traditional Polish gingerbread that has been produced since the Middle Ages in the city of Toruń. It was a favorite delicacy of Chopin‘s when he visited his godfather, Fryderyk Florian Skarbek, in Toruń during one of his school vacations.
In Romania, gingerbread is called turtă dulce and is usually coated with sugar glazing.
In Brazil, a type of cake similar to gingerbread is known as pão de mel (“honey bread”), it can be as big as a coffee cake, or bite-sized, and it’s usually coated with chocolate.
There is also a very popular local variety of gingerbread in Bulgaria. It’s called меденка (“made of honey”). Traditionally the cookie is as big as the palm of the hand, round and flat, covered in a thin layer of chocolate. Other common ingredients include honey, cinnamon, ginger and dried clove. It is also made in Karakol.
A gingerbread house is a model house made of gingerbread. 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 molded like clay to form edible statuettes or other decorations. These houses, covered with a variety of candies and icing, are popular Christmas decorations, often built by children with the help of their parents.
Records of honey cakes can be traced to ancient Rome. Food historians ratify that ginger has been seasoning foodstuffs and drinks since antiquity. It is believed gingerbread was first baked in Europe at the end of the 11th century, when returning crusaders brought back the custom of spicy bread from the Middle East. Ginger was not only tasty it had properties that helped preserve the bread. According to the French legend, gingerbread was brought to Europe in 992 by the Armenian monk, later saint, Gregory of Nicopolis (Gregory Makar). He lived for seven years in Bondaroy, France, near the town of Pithiviers, where he taught gingerbread cooking to priests and other Christians. He died in 999. Gingerbread, as we know it today, descends from Medieval European culinary traditions. Gingerbread was also shaped into different forms by monks in Franconia, Germany in the 13th century. Lebkuchen bakers are recorded as early as 1296 in Ulm and 1395 in Nuremberg. Nuremberg was recognized as the “Gingerbread Capital of the World” when in the 1600s the guild started to employ master bakers and skilled workers to create complicated works of art from gingerbread. Medieval bakers used carved boards to create elaborate designs. During the 13th century, the custom spread across Europe. It was taken to Sweden in the 13th century by German immigrants; there are references from Vadstena Abbey of Swedish nuns baking gingerbread to ease indigestion in 1444. The traditional sweetener is honey, used by the guild in Nuremberg. Spices used are ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and cardamom. Gingerbread figurines date back to the 15th century, and figural biscuit-making was practised in the 16th century. The first documented instance of figure-shaped gingerbread biscuits is from the court of Elizabeth I of England: she had gingerbread figures made in the likeness of some of her important guests.
History of Shaping Gingerbread
The gingerbread bakers were gathered into professional baker guilds. In many European countries gingerbread bakers were a distinct component of the bakers’ guild. Gingerbread baking developed into an acknowledged profession. In the 17th century only professional gingerbread bakers were permitted to bake gingerbread except at Christmas and Easter, when anyone was allowed to bake it.
In Europe gingerbreads were sold in special shops and at seasonal markets that sold sweets and gingerbread shaped as hearts, stars, soldiers, babies, riders, trumpets, swords, pistols and animals. Gingerbread was especially sold outside churches on Sundays. Religious gingerbread reliefs were purchased for the particular religious events, such as Christmas and Easter. The decorated gingerbreads were given as presents to adults and children, or given as a love token, and bought particularly for weddings, where gingerbreads were distributed to the wedding guests. A gingerbread relief of the patron saint was frequently given as a gift on a person’s name day, the day of the saint associated with his or her given name. It was the custom to bake biscuits and paint them as window decorations. The most intricate gingerbreads were also embellished with iced patterns, often using colors and also gilded with gold leaf. Gingerbread was also worn as a talisman in battle or as protection against evil spirits.
Gingerbread was a significant form of popular art in Europe; major centers of gingerbread mold carvings included Lyon, Nuremberg, Pest, Prague, Pardubice, Pulsnitz, Ulm, and Toruń. Gingerbread molds often displayed actual happenings, by portraying new rulers and their consorts, for example. Substantial mould collections are held at the Ethnographic Museum in Toruń, Poland and the Bread Museum in Ulm, Germany. During the winter months medieval gingerbread pastries, usually dipped in wine or other alcoholic beverages, were consumed. In America, the German-speaking communities of Pennsylvania and Maryland continued this tradition until the early 20th century. The tradition survived in colonial North America, where the pastries were called ginger snap cookies and gained favor as Christmas tree decorations.
The tradition of making decorated gingerbread houses started in Germany in the early 1800s. According to certain researchers, the first gingerbread houses were the result of the well-known Grimm‘s fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel” in which the two children abandoned in the forest found an edible house made of bread with sugar decorations. After this book was published, German bakers began baking ornamented fairy-tale houses of lebkuchen (gingerbread). These became popular during Christmas, a tradition that came to America with Pennsylvanian German immigrants. According to other food historians, the Grimm brothers were speaking about something that already existed.
In modern times the tradition has continued in certain places in Europe. In Germany the Christmas markets still sell decorated gingerbread before Christmas. (Lebkuchenhaus or Pfefferkuchenhaus are the German terms for a gingerbread house. Making gingerbread houses is still a way of celebrating Christmas in many families. They are built traditionally before Christmas using pieces of baked gingerbread dough assembled with melted sugar. The roof tiles can consist of frosting or candy. The gingerbread house yard is usually decorated with icing to represent snow.
A gingerbread house does not have to be an actual house, although it is the most common. It can be anything from a castle to a small cabin, or another kind of building, such as a church, an art museum or a sports stadium and other items, such as cars, gingerbread men and gingerbread women, can be made of gingerbread dough.