Gingerbread is a favorite for the holidays, whether it’s gingerbread cookies or cake. Ever wonder where it came from?
This post will be written by both of us Kitchen Kneads bloggers, Dawn and Allison, each answering some questions and sharing a recipe for gingerbread cookies and gingerbread cake. We hope you have fun reading! We definitely found the history surrounding gingerbread so much more fascinating than we thought it would be and we hope you do too!
After you’re done reading, we hope you’ll go have fun baking each variety and sharing it with your family this Christmas season.
Allison: Where did gingerbread come from?
Ginger root was first cultivated in ancient China, where it was commonly used as a medical or ceremonial treatment. The first known recipe for gingerbread came from Greece in 2400 BC. Chinese recipes were developed during the 10th century and by the late Middle Ages, Europeans had their own version of gingerbread. From there it spread to Europe via the Silk Road. During the Middle Ages, it was favored as a spice for its ability to disguise the taste of preserved meats. Henry VIII is said to have used a ginger concoction in hope of building resistance to the plague. Gingerbread arrived in the New World with English Colonists.
Source: The history kitchen
Dawn: Where did the tradition of gingerbread men come from?
Gingerbread has been around for a very long time. It would be cut into many different shapes and baked for pretty much all occasions. But in the 16th century Queen Elizabeth I is credited for the gingerbread man. She had her own gingerbread maker and had him make gingerbread in the shape of and decorate them in the likeness of her visiting dignitaries. They’re also said to have been made by folk medicine practitioners as a sort of “love potion”.
A: What are the spices usually found in gingerbread?
The spices in gingerbread are rich and warm. These include molasses, dark brown sugar, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, and of course ginger. The recipe that I am going to share with you included orange juice and orange zest. This made a delicious pairing with the warm flavors.
D: Where did the tradition of gingerbread houses come from?
Gingerbread houses originated in Germany in the 16th century and gained popularity about 300 years later after the Brothers Grimm published their story “Hansel and Gretel” in 1812. The witch’s house was made of gingerbread and decorated with candy.
A: Where did the gingerbread cake come from?
In 2019, I visited Mount Vernon, home of George and Martha Washington, in Virginia. This gingerbread recipe is known as Lafayette Gingerbread and is attributed to George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, who is said to have served it to the Marquis de Lafayette when he visited her in Fredericksburg toward the end of her life. This gingerbread came to be called Lafayette Gingerbread, in honor of the beloved French general. I love the flavor of this gingerbread. It is a bit smoother in flavor than typical gingerbreads. The orange hint is delicious. This is a dense gingerbread but is deliciously eaten warm with whip cream. This recipe and flavor would be a wonderful way to welcome carolers to your home or a delightful way to end a wonderful evening of trimming the tree. As many of you know, I like bare-bone ingredient recipes and this one is one of those. Enjoy!!
- ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
- ½ cup plus 2 tablespoons packed dark brown sugar
- Scant 2 ¾ cups spelt flour
- 1 tablespoon ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon ground cloves
- ¼ teaspoon ground allspice
- 2 large eggs, plus 2 large egg whites, lightly beaten
- 1/3 cup fresh orange juice
- 1 tablespoon freshly grated orange zest
- Optional (1 tablespoon finely diced orange peel)
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter or spray a 9-inch square cake pan. (I used the 9-inch square USA pan)
- In the bowl of an electric mixer, or in a large bowl beating by hand, combine the butter and brown sugar until light and fluffy. Add the molasses, and continue to beat until well combined.
- Sift the flour with ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and allspice.
- Alternately add the egg and flour to the butter mixture, beating very well after each addition.
- Add the orange juice and zest, and continue beating for several minutes until the batter is smooth and light.
- Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 35-45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Set the cake on a rack to cool completely in the pan before slicing.
- Serve with whip cream and fresh ground nutmeg.
Recipe from Mount Vernon Estate
D: Can the same recipe be used for cookies AND houses? Can houses be eaten after being decorated and sitting a while?
Yes! But also, no. There are some gingerbread cookie recipes that are soft, more like a gingerbread sugar cookie. And while these are great, they’re not suitable for gingerbread houses. Make sure your recipe produces a harder, crispy cookie and you should be just fine to make houses with it. The recipe I’ve shared below is great for both cookies and houses.
Yes, you can eat your gingerbread houses after they’ve been decorated and have been sitting for a while. But it’s all up to you, really. It won’t make you sick to eat them unless they’ve been contaminated somehow. They’ll just dry out and maybe get a little dusty. If you’re okay with that, I say go for it. Otherwise, just have it around as a decoration.
A: Why is it called gingerbread?
The term gingerbread is an old French word, which actually means, preserved ginger. The root was first cultivated in ancient China and it was eventually discovered that it helped to preserve both flour and meat.
D: What is the moral of The Gingerbread Man story?
I think we all know the story of the gingerbread man. It was one of my favorites in elementary school and still is today. But as a little refresher, a man and a woman couldn’t have children, so the woman baked a gingerbread boy (or man). When he came out of the oven, he jumped up and ran out the door saying, “Run, run as fast as you can. You can’t catch me. I’m the gingerbread man.” He ran into the forest and came upon several different animals that wanted to eat him, but he just kept running. Finally, he came to a fox who told him that he didn’t think he looked delicious at all and while the gingerbread man stood there stumped, the fox gobbled him up. The moral is: Be careful who you trust.”
- 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 cup whole wheat flour
- 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
- 1 tablespoon ground ginger
- 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 3/4 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 3/4 cup butter, softened
- 1/2 cup packed brown sugar
- 1 large egg
- 1/2 cup molasses
- 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- In a large mixing bowl, whisk together flour, cinnamon, ginger, baking soda, cloves, salt, and nutmeg. Set aside.
- Using a stand mixer or a large bowl with a hand mixer, cream the butter and sugar together for 2 minutes on medium-high speed until light and fluffy. Add in eggs, molasses and vanilla. Beat on medium speed until combined.
- Add flour, cinnamon, ginger, baking soda, cloves, salt, and nutmeg. Mix until the dough comes together. This might take some time, but be patient. It will come together.
- Divide the dough into two equal portions and form them each into a disc. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours or overnight.
- When the dough is thoroughly chilled and you’re ready to bake the cookies, heat the oven to 350 degrees F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper; set aside.
- Unwrap the dough and place it on a large, lightly-floured hard surface. Lightly dust flour on top of the dough. Using a rolling pin, roll the dough evenly until it is about 1/8-inch thick. Use your favorite cookie cutters to cut out your desired shapes, re-rolling the dough as needed to cut out more. Transfer to parchment-covered baking sheets.
- Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the cookies are crisp around the edges and on top. Remove from oven and let cool for 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to finish cooling.
- When the cookies are completely cooled, decorate them as desired.
Recipe adapted from Gimme Some Oven