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Gingerbread Fantasies
by Bob Brooke


A sweet treat from Colonial times in America, gingerbread has always been special at holiday time, whether it has been fashioned into simple, fanciful shapes to decorate a pine tree, as sturdy men for eating, or as a flavorful cakes for dessert..

For many Americans, the word gingerbread conjures up homey images of warm kitchens, childhood treats, and simple holiday pleasures. In 1796 Amelia Simmons included a recipe for it in the first cookbook ever published in America.

As a fragrant cake, it emerges from the oven soft, moist, and sweet, to be eaten unadorned or with a dollop of whipped cream or a tangy sauce. If intended to be used to trim a holiday tree or constructing a gingerbread house, it can be transformed into a malleable dough; rolled, pressed into fanciful molds, and baked.

The Origins of Gingerbread
Crusaders brought the ginger spice back from the East. The confection known as gingerbread first appeared in England as gingerbruti, a medieval medicinal paste compounded of ginger, pepper, parsnips, and honey. They often added wine, ale or other kinds of liquor but eventually substituted molasses and flour for the honey and breadcrumbs, and by the end of the 14th century the concoction became known as gyngerbrede.

But it wasn't until 1485 in Nuremburg, that the author of the first printed cookbook referred to Lebkuchen, spiced cakes decorated with whole clove and colored icing. Cooks flavored these delectable cakes with a variety of spices ginger, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, anise and white pepper which came from Eastern Europe and Mediterranean trade routes. They replaced one other expensive and rare ingredient, sugar, with honey, gathered from beekeepers who settled in the woods around the city. The Lebkuchen bakers considered themselves artisans and carved wooden molds to press patterns into the gingerbread. They also used gold dust to produce an edible paint.

In 16th-century France, gingerbread became known as pain d'epice. In 1571, gingerbread bakers formed their own guild to distinguish themselves from other pastry cooks and bakers.

Meanwhile in England, gingerbread had become such an everyday sweet that both Shakespeare and Ben Johnson referred to it their in writings. It became a common sight to see vendors hawking gilded gingerbread images of saints and animals in city streets and at country fairs. And Queen Elizabeth I favored important visitors with charming gingerbread likenesses of themselves. Around that time, bakers altered the recipe slightly, replacing the traditional sweetener, honey, with the rich, dense flavor of molasses from colonies in the New World.

Three hundred years later, German and French bakers added flour and eggs to paste and turned the resulting dough into works of art. By the time Peter the Great was born in Russia, the art form had attained such elaborate proportions that a gingerbread replica of the Kremlin weighing almost 200 pounds was among the gifts given to welcome the new czar.

In 1784 Mary Hall Washington served gingerbread cake to her son, George, and the Marquis de Lafayette (along with a mint julep to wash it down). Both men had probably eaten a version of the spicy sweet during the Revolutionary War, when it was a staple for the soldiers—both Continental and Redcoat.

In the new republic, gingerbread's popularity with the troops continued on Muster Day (generally the first Tuesday in June), when men of military age gathered on town greens to drill and fire their weapons. Wives, children, and family friends frequently came along to watch, while eating thin slabs of crisp gingerbread.

Stalls in Colonial markets sold gingerbread cakes while itinerant peddlers called pastry boys wandered the crowded streets with trays of hot spice gingerbread heads, inviting passers-by to sample their wares.

During the early 19th century, gingerbread took on a new shape and texture, becoming a softer confection more like cake. As trade with the East flourished, women became more adventurous with spices, using them frequently when baking. Gingerroot usually grated or chopped fine—quickly became such a popular ingredient that clipper ships delivered it regularly to Salem, Massachusetts, early America's largest port of entry for spices. Merchants competed for a share of the knobby, gnarled ginger-mitt, a few shavings of which could enliven the flavor of a dish. And sailors often carried the cake-like gingerbread on return visits to the Orient as an aid to digestion.

The first folk recognition came in 1812 with the publication of Grimm’s Nursery and Household Tales, a collection of German stories. One of them, "Hansel and Gretel," did more for the legend of gingerbread than anything else. In the story, two children get lost in the woods and find a house made of bread and cake, with windows of sugar. German composer Engelbert Humperdinck wrote an opera based on the story, in which the house in the set was made of gingerbread. This established the small cottage as the most popular gingerbread motif. German bakeries began offering elaborate gingerbread houses with icing snow on the roofs, along with edible gingerbread Christmas cards and finely detailed molded cookies.

Tinsmiths fashioned cookie cutters into all imaginable forms, and every woman wanted one shape that was different from anybody else's. Most of the gingerbread cookies that hung on 19th-century Christmas trees were at least half an inch thick and cut into animal shapes or gingerbread men. By the 1880's, flat gingerbread cakes also appeared, often decorated with colorful pictures pasted on with egg whites.

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