Tis the season. And by that, I mean cookie season. It’s what December has become, and in all honestly, I adore that. For me, baking cookies is calming, and a welcome escape from the grind and stress of everyday life (especially now). My love of cookies, which includes both making and eating them, has never been a secret, and I’m totally fine with owning that.
Truthfully, I find comfort in baking cookies and if you live near me, chances are, I’ve brought you cookies at some point. These gingerbread cookies are both easily and classic, like my marbled holiday cut-out cookies. Gingerbread cookies themselves, however, are unlike all others, a sweet-and-spicy cookie in one, with a rich history. To me, gingerbread cookies are the hallmark of the Christmas season and a must-make in my house.
History Of Gingerbread
Historically, “Gingerbread” can actually refer to a rather broad category of baked goods commonly flavored with ginger, cloves, nutmeg, or cinnamon and sweetened with honey, sugar, or molasses. Gingerbread can refer to a soft cookie, a moist cake, or even a crispy snap biscuit. But in this recipe, I’m referring to the softer variety.
According to Steven Stellingwerf, author of The Gingerbread Book, gingerbread was likely introduced to Western Europe by 11th-century crusaders returning from the eastern Mediterranean. Its precise origin is somewhat unknown, although it is clear that ginger itself originates in Asia.
The meaning of the word “gingerbread“, according to Stellingwerf, has been “reshaped” over centuries. In medieval England, it referred to any kind of preserved ginger and not a baked good at all. It was not until the 15th century that the term became associated with ginger-flavored cakes.
Gingerbread Cookies Around The World
The original European recipe for gingerbread consisted of ground almonds, stale breadcrumbs, rosewater, sugar, and, naturally, ginger. The paste was pressed into wooden molds. These cookies, called “fairings“, were often sold at festivals and fairs in medieval Europe. Commonly shaped and elaborately decorated to look like flowers, birds, animals, or even armor. At that time, gingerbread was often associated with good luck. Knights were given pieces of gingerbread as a token of good luck in a tournament. There was also a belief that if a woman ate a “gingerbread husband” it might lead to her marriage.
In the 16th century, the English replaced the breadcrumbs with flour, and added eggs and sweeteners, resulting in a lighter baked good, which was commonly baked in the form of a gingerbread man. Queen Elizabeth I became well known for serving these popular treats to foreign dignitaries, often baked in their own likeness.
In Nordic countries, the most popular form of ginger confection is a thin, brittle-type biscuit that is typically associated with the Christmas season; “pepperkaker” in Norway, “pepparkakor” in Sweden, “brunkager” in Denmark, and “piparkökur” in Iceland.
The oldest recorded gingerbread recipe can actually be traced back to the 16th century and is kept in the Germanic National Museum in Nuremberg. Gingerbread from that city actually has “protected geographical indication” from the European Union, like Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano and French Champagne.
In Germany there are two popular types of gingerbread, the most commonly made in a soft form called Lebkuchen served at Oktoberfest in Munich, typically in the shape of hearts frosted with romantic messages such as “Alles was ich brauch bist du“, meaning “All I need is you”. The other is a crispier version typically used to make gingerbread houses.
It was the Germans who invented the concept of making gingerbread into houses, which was most likely inspired by the Brothers Grimm, who wrote about a witch’s cottage made of candy and cookies in the beloved fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel.
Gingerbread eventually came to the Americas with settlers from Europe. Molasses, which was less expensive than sugar, soon became a common ingredient and led to a much softer texture. The first American cookbook, American Cookery by Amelia Simmons published in 1796, has three types of gingerbread including a soft variety similar to mine.
My gingerbread cookie recipe is more traditional side flavor-wise, but is a versatile one that can be used for making cookies or gingerbread houses, should you desire. No confection symbolizes the holiday season quite like a simple gingerbread cookie, decorated or straight up, you no doubt have the essence of the holiday season in one bite.