Gingerbread has been a part of culinary tradition dating back to the Roman Empire. Many cultures have similar versions known as “spice cake,” and “pepper cake.” This holiday treat can be made in two forms; soft or hard. The soft recipe is more ‘cake-like’ and good for slicing. The other form-hard and crispy, allows for shaping and decorating with sweets and icing. Historically, the first preparation of this dessert was reserved only for the skillful hands of select bakers.
The shaping and baking of gingerbread dates back to the 15th century and became an an acknowledged profession in many European countries by the 17th century. The professional bakers were gathered into specific baker guilds, gingerbread being one of these elite groups. Only professional gingerbread bakers were permitted to bake gingerbread except at Christmas and Easter, when anyone was allowed to create their version of this culinary delicacy. Before the onset of cookie house building, gingerbread was consumed by first dipping in wine or other alcoholic beverages-a precursor to cookies and milk! The Brothers Grimm brought upon an interesting change to the spicy tradition.
Some cooking historians note the folktale, Hansel and Gretel, written by the Brothers Grimm as the birth of gingerbread house construction. The simple, yet gruesome story tells of a young brother and sister who were abandoned in the forest by their poverty stricken parents. An unfortunate, but true reality of famine during medieval times. On a happier note, thanks to the authors, the story goes on to say the siblings stumbled upon an edible house made of bread with sugar decorations which quickly changed their hungry lives. Down through the ages, an explanation of the historical connection between gingerbread and religious ceremonies or guilds, gingerbread and gingerbread houses had become associated with Christmas. The Grimms widely read stories helped to popularize gingerbread houses, leaving many with the belief that gingerbread houses started with the Grimms version of the tale. Yet, after this book was published, German bakers began making ornamented fairy-tale houses of lebkuchenhaus (gingerbread).
These became popular during Christmas, a tradition that came to America with Pennsylvanian German immigrants. “Early German settlers brought this lebkuchenhaus–gingerbread house–tradition to the Americas,” writes Barbara Rolek for The Spruce. The tradition survived in colonial North America, where the pastries were called ginger snap cookies and gained favor as Christmas tree decorations. Like most Christmas traditions, gingerbread houses are big business.
Millions of gingerbread house kits have been baked and distributed throughout the United States through the decades. Unlike the baked version, this method provides a simple and easy activity for friends and family to enjoy – take out of the box, unwrap the components, assemble, and decorate. The early German version of constructing this holiday tradition, can be found through various Do-It-Yourself websites which offer up a variety of styles and modern ingredients. Today, gingerbread house-building competitions are an annual holiday tradition both nationally and in different parts of the country.The gingerbread house-building contests in the United States today do bear some resemblance to the “gingerbread fairs” that were hosted by some cities in England and France during the Middle Ages and later, writes Amanda Fiegl for Smithsonian.com. However your cookie or gingerbread crumbles this season, it is a delicious way to serve up an historical tradition with family and friends. Please pass the milk (or wine), Merry Christmas!