Gingerbread for Christmas: Winter Holiday Traditions From Medieval Bakers

Cooks in classical Greece (5th to 4th century BC) concocted ginger and honey delicacies. Soon after, Roman cooks made and molded a honey and flour concoction into heart shapes, and baked it for celebrations. European crusaders (11th though 13th centuries) brought these Mediterranean honey cakes and spices back home.

European Gingerbread

The crusader souvenirs gradually evolved into gingerbreads and a highly varied assortment of ginger-flavored foods. Spices included allspice, anise seed, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, ginger, and mace. Other introduced luxuries like candied lemon peel, candied orange peel and rose water were available without difficulty to those able to pay.

Medieval English gingerbread was hard and dry – a medical candy-like concoction. Highly spiced crisp cookies quickly improved upon these practical confections. Meanwhile, European bakers developed a large family of honey-based spiced cakes and molded cookies such as:

  • Lebkuchen – Germany,
  • Pierniki or Piernik – Poland,
  • Pain d’ epices – France, and
  • Peperkoek – The Netherlands.

Many European-trained bakers and their descendents maintain the art of making shaped gingerbreads.

Gingerbread Molds

Wooden molds traditionally shape large fancy gingerbreads available for both eating and decoration. The finest ones represent a branch of popular art recognized and studied by numerous European museums. Some of the best-known centers of mold carvings were Lyon (France), Nürnberg (Germany), Ulm (Germany), Torun (Poland), Pesth (Hungary), and Prague (Czech Republic). The Nazi occupation of these countries in the 1940’s destroyed many of the old wooden cookie boards. The Bread Museum in Ulm, Germany, and the Ethnographic Museum in Torun, Poland contain two of the best and largest remaining mold collections in Europe.

North American Gingerbread

The crisp ginger cakes of colonial North America developed from the family of medieval cookies. These days, cooks bake and customers buy plain ginger cookies, or ginger snap cookies. This texture creates popular Christmas tree ornaments and thicker slabs that go into constructing gingerbread houses.

What about the thick pieces of warm gingerbread smothered with whipped cream associated with colonial-type cooking? With the addition of chemical leavening agents like saleratus (baking soda – sodium or potassium bicarbonate) to baking in the 19th century, colonial crisp gingerbread developed into the easier-to-make soft gingerbread or gingerbread cake.

Baking Traditional Gingerbread

Home bakers can never duplicate German lebkuchen or Polish pierniki exactly as they might buy them in ethnic bakeries or online stores. In many European countries, until recently gingerbread baking was a professional field, with gingerbread bakers a distinct subunit of bakers’ guilds. Authentic recipes are still hard to come by and zealously guarded.

So, what makes a true old-fashioned European gingerbread? Here is what to look for: a slightly soft, moist texture, spicy with just a bit of a snap usually from pepper, very small pieces of fruits and nuts, and a smooth luscious chocolate coating.

Gingerbread Recipes for Christmas and Winter provides a sampling of recipes that includes modern cutout cookies, German lebkuchen and Polish piernik.

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