Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Gingerbread House

Today, Cake Wrecks has posted a page of beautiful gingerbread houses. That makes it a great time to think about how gingerbread houses became a Christmas tradition in the first place. 

The story of gingerbread houses starts with the story of gingerbread, and gingerbread goes back to Europe during the Middle Ages.  Medieval gingerbread was not a building material, even for doll-sized houses. It was sticky and somewhat cakelike, and often contained bread crumbs. These medieval recipes indicates the types and proportions of ingredients involved, though the primary spices used--ginger and cinnamon--are still characteristic of the modern product.

By the 16th century gingerbread had changed into a more cookie-like product and was already being baked into novel shapes, often with molds. The Portuguese Honey Bread recipe I have written about in the past is likely a hybrid of the two gingerbread types--made with sticky liquid yet ultimately yielding a firm and rather dry product. The Food Timeline cites an article claiming that Queen Elizabeth I was an early adopter of gingerbread figures, having her bakers make gingerbread images of her noble guests. According to the Food Timeline, original development of Gingerbread as Christmas Cookie lies with one (or, perhaps both) of the following places: "the honey-based gingerbreads of Middle European origin--mostly Germany--and the molasses shortbreads that developed in England or Scotland, depending upon which historian you wish to believe." Supposedly, the Pennsylvania Germans of central Pennsylvania and beyond were making foot-tall gingerbread men to stand in their homes' windows as Christmas decorations.

As for the gingerbread house, it is speculated that they first became popular as a result of similar motifs that appear in the Grimm Brothers' stories, which were first published in the 1810s.  Nowadays, of course, you don't even have to bake to be able to make yourself a gingerbread house, though there are gingerbread house recipes such as this one on the Internet if you want to bake one yourself. You can buy kits in the supermarket with pre-baked, pre-shaped gingerbread house components--all you need to do is make icing and add your own decorations! I can't prove this just now, but I bet such kits were first sold in the late 20th century.

For my part, I don't plan to make a gingerbread house--who would eat it? Me and my husband? We hardly need so much cookie in our Christmas. But my husband's mother makes wonderful gingerbread men, and I'm looking forward to eating one of those. Just one, mind you--they are a least a half-an-inch thick--one will certainly last through my holiday.

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