Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.
And I had but one penny in the world, thou should'st have it to buy gingerbread.
— William Shakespeare, "Love's Labor's Lost"
We Assume It's a European Tradition
Shakespeare referenced it, fairy tales were spun upon it, but gingerbread did not have its birth in Europe. Here's what really happened.
It Originated in China
Ginger is a beautiful fragrant flowering plant, a luxurious tuberous perennial that spreads her fleshy roots underground to expand and propagate. Her story begins as many of our tales about treasured herbs and spices—deep within the heart of India.
It is there that anthropologists have found remnants, tiny fragments of ginger root used 5,000 years ago. Think about that for a moment. In the beginning, long before the written word, long before Man began to record his own history, there was ginger.
We also know that ginger grew in China; wise men in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic Indian systems viewed it as a healing gift from God. From its origin to the present, ginger has been the world’s most widely cultivated herb.
Historians believe that by the 5th century, ginger was being transported in trade ships to what was then the far reaches of the Earth—Rome—where it was used both as a medicine and a flavoring agent. Ginger became a highly valued trade commodity. However, with the decline of the Roman Empire, this precious (and costly) herb almost fell from existence in Europe. Arab merchants stepped in and began to control the export of ginger from India, and they developed a new market in Africa where ginger proved to be a treatment for malaria and yellow fever.
Today ginger can be found anywhere, and for just a few dollars, but in the 13thcentury ginger was so highly valued that one pound cost the same as a whole live sheep.
According to Rhonda Massingham Hart’s Making Gingerbread Houses, the first known recipe for gingerbread came from Greece in 2,400 BC. By medieval times ginger was being preserved and imported to England for use in sweets. A common use was “gingerbread.” It is said that Queen Elizabeth I of England originated the idea of forming gingerbread into the likeness of visiting dignitaries.
Which Came First?
Did the structure inspire the tale, or did the story lead to the treat?
Food historians tell us that the gingerbread house originated in Germany in the 16th century and somehow became a part of the traditional Christmas celebration. That is when the brothers Grimm wrote their famous story of Hansel and Gretel. But which came first, the story or the cookie house?
the construction of gingerbread houses is a well-loved family tradition throughout Europe and the United States.
I mention all of this as prelude because last week I received this plea from one of my writer friends:
"With Christmas approaching do you have a good recipe for gingerbread that could be used for building a gingerbread house? And perhaps some icing that can actually glue it together so it’ll stick? I always have to hot glue mine!"
Read More From Delishably
Yes, of course, I can do that. However, be forewarned. I'm no Martha Stewart.
What Makes a Great Gingerbread House?
Of course, we need candy, lots and lots of candy. I know you can handle that. But before you can decorate that masterpiece you need
- the basic cookie dough recipe, and
- a never-fail icing (so that you can put away the hot-glue gun)
The Perfect Gingerbread House Dough
This recipe is an adaptation of one I found at Genius Kitchen. I heeded the advice of other bakers' comments. Note that this dough, although edible, is not the gingerbread one would use to make cookies. There is no leavening or eggs so the result is a "structural" dough that does not puff up and spread while baking.
- 2 cups dark corn syrup
- 1 1⁄2 cups firmly packed dark brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon cinnamon
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
- 1 1⁄4 cups margarine (not butter, and not reduced-fat spread)
- 6 cups all-purpose flour (plus more for kneading and rolling)
- 1⁄2 teaspoon salt
- In a medium microwave-safe bowl, heat corn syrup, brown sugar, and margarine until the margarine has melted and sugar has dissolved completely. Stir until smooth.
- Meanwhile, in a large bowl, combine flour and salt. Add syrup-sugar-margarine mixture. Mix well.
- Wrap the dough in plastic and let it rest at least 30 minutes at room temperature. (Do not chill the dough).
- Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Roll out the dough 1/8-inch thick onto a sheet of parchment cut to fit your baking pan.
- Lightly flour the cardboard patterns and place them on the rolled-out dough, leaving a 1-inch space between pieces. Try to fit as many as you can without crowding. For clean edges, cut with a pizza wheel. Remove and reserve excess dough and keep wrapped in plastic wrap so that it doesn't dry out. Reroll dough scraps for the remainder of the pieces.
- Grab the opposite edges of the parchment paper and transfer to the baking sheet. Bake 12 minutes or until pieces are firm. Cool completely before removing from pans.
The Equally Perfect Icing to Hold It All Together
The real-deal icing, the tie-that-binds, is royal icing. This is not the cream and confectioner's sugar frosting that you slather on a birthday cake. Instead of cream, royal icing relies on egg whites to provide the liquid and the perfect glue for gingerbread.
But, not all egg whites are created equal. I don't own a cooking scale (and assume that most of you don't either). So, the recipe that I rely on is based on confectioners sugar, water, and meringue powder (also known as powdered egg whites). With those three ingredients, you can measure out exact amounts and achieve perfection.
- 4 cups sifted confectioners sugar
- 3 tablespoons meringue powder
- 5 tablespoons warm water
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla or almond extract
- In the bowl of your electric mixer beat the confectioner's sugar and meringue powder to blend.
- Add the water and beat on medium to high speed until very glossy and stiff peaks form (about 5 to 7 minutes). If the mixture seems too thin, add a pinch of meringue powder. Likewise, if it seems too thick, add a mere few drops of warm water.
- This recipe makes about 3 cups. Measure out what you need into a piping bag and keep the remainder in the bowl, covered tightly with plastic wrap. If exposed to the air the icing will harden.
Where Can You Get Patterns?
There are dozens and dozens of patterns for gingerbread houses on the internet. If this is your first attempt at constructing a cookie house, I would suggest that you stick to a simple, traditional 4-sided house with a slanted roof. The website TikkiDo has some great suggestions and easy printable patterns.
If even that seems a bit intimidating, may I suggest an A-frame house? Here's a photograph of one to inspire you.
A Few More Pointers
- Keep your bowl of royal icing covered so that it doesn't dry out.
- You can't build the house in one afternoon. You need to "glue" one section together, let it dry, and then work on the next section. I use cups, drinking glasses, and soup cans to support the pieces while they are drying.
- Measure carefully, both ingredients and pattern templates.
- Any rough edges on the baked gingerbread pieces can be sanded away with a microplane, zester, or fine-grit sandpaper.
- Most of all, have fun and be sure to sample those candies for quality-control purposes (wink, wink).
Questions & Answers
Question: How can you cut already hard gingerbread ?
Answer: I've not had to do this but I think rewarming the cookie would make it cut-able. Either place on a cookie sheet a place in a warm oven for a few minutes or wrap in a damp paper towel and zap in the microwave for just a few (2, 3, 4, 5) seconds.
Question: how many gingerbread houses does this recipe make?
Answer: I can't tell you exactly how many houses this makes (that's like asking how many rooms will a gallon of paint cover. It depends on the size of the room). What I CAN tell you is that this will fill an 11-inch by 15-inch sheet pan.
© 2018 Linda Lum