Perhaps no other food has been decorated, shared and associated with holidays and festivals for as many years as gingerbread. We know ginger dates back to the Greeks and Egyptians. A recipe for gingerbread appeared in the world’s oldest cookbook in Ancient Rome.

It is believed that European Catholic monks first made gingerbread for holidays and festivals in England; but France, and especially Germany, were also known to eat gingerbread treats to celebrate holidays.

Ginger was called “zingebar” in Latin, “gingebras” in Old French; “gingerbread” in Medieval England and “Lebkuchen” in German. Until the 15th century, “gingerbread” referred only to preserved ginger itself.

Crusaders returning to Europe from the Middle East brought back spices such as ginger. Catholic monks formed it into cakes and pressed it into molds. At first only the rich enjoyed ginger for their cooks were creative.

As time passed, gingerbread became popular at European fairs and festivals where it was often pressed into shapes like hearts and animals, tied on ribbon and sold to fair goers. It was also added to meat to preserve it and help cover up the strong odor of aging meat.

Gingerbread was not baked in homes until the 15th century. Until then it was made by government-recognized guilds as a means of quality control as well as a way to limit competition in the making of it.

Gingerbread houses have also been a popular treat and decoration. Made popular by The Brothers Grimm in their fairy tale Hansel and Gretel, German “hexenhaeusle” or witch’s house were made of Lebkuchen and decorated with sweets.

The first gingerbread in the U.S. is thought to have been brought by Swiss Catholic monks who founded the St. Meinrad Arch abbey in Indiana in 1854. Because ginger had been discovered to have healing powers, the monks provided it to the sick as well as baked it for holiday celebrations.

Baking cookies and houses to celebrate the Christmas season became a tradition in the U.S. and is still popular today. We not only bake gingerbread cookies, men and treats, we find it in many restaurants and coffeehouses. From cookies to house kits to lattes and more, tis the season for gingerbread so let’s enjoy it.

Best Ever Gingerbread Cookies

3-cups all-purpose flour

1 1/2-teaspoons baking powder

3/4-teaspoon baking soda

1/4-teaspoon salt

1-tablespoon ground ginger

1 3/4-teaspoons ground cinnamon

1/4-teaspoon ground cloves

6-tablespoons unsalted butter

3/4-cup dark brown sugar

1 large egg

1/2-cup molasses

2-teaspoons vanilla

1-teaspoon finely grated lemon zest (optional)

In a small bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, ginger, cinnamon, and cloves until well blended.

In large bowl of mixer, beat butter, brown sugar, and egg on medium speed until well blended.

Add molasses, vanilla, and lemon zest and continue to mix until well blended. Gradually stir in dry ingredients until blended and smooth.

Divide dough in half and wrap each half in plastic and let stand at room temperature for at least 2 hours or up to 8 hours. (Dough can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 4 days, but in this case it should be refrigerated. Return to room temp before using.) Preheat oven to 375°.

Grease or line cookie sheets with parchment paper.

Place 1 portion of the dough on a lightly floured surface. Sprinkle flour over dough and rolling pin. Roll dough to a scant l/4-inch thick. Use additional flour to avoid sticking.

Cut out cookies with desired cutter-- the ginger bread man is our favorite of course. Space cookies 1 1/2-inches apart. Bake 1 sheet at a time for 7-10 minutes (the lower time will give you softer cookies-very good!).

Remove cookie sheet from oven and allow the cookies to stand until the cookies are firm enough to move to a wire rack.

After cookies are cool you may decorate them any way you like. I usually brush them with a powdered sugar glaze when I am in a hurry, but they look wonderful decorated with Royal icing.

Starbucks Gingerbread Loaf

1 1/2-cups all-purpose flour

2-teaspoons ground cinnamon

1-teaspoon ground cloves

2 1/4-teaspoons ginger

1-teaspoon salt

1/2-cup butter, softened

1-cup white sugar

1-teaspoon orange extract, optional

1-cup applesauce

1-teaspoon baking soda

Frosting:

1 (8 oz.) pkg. cream cheese, softened

1-teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2-teaspoon orange extract

2 1/2-cups confectioner’s sugar

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour a 9-inch square pan.

In a medium bowl, mix together flour, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and salt.

Then set aside.

In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar until fluffy. Stir in orange extract. Mix baking soda into applesauce and stir into creamed butter mixture. Add flour mixture. Mix until smooth.

Pour batter into prepared loaf pan.

Bake at 350 degrees F for 40 to 50 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into center of cake comes out clean.

Frosting:

Beat cream cheese until fluffy. Beat in vanilla and orange extract. Slowly beat in confectioner’s sugar.

Once the cake has cooled, evenly spread the frosting on top. Decorate with chopped candied orange peel or candied ginger.

— Judy O’Daniel’s “Country Gourmet” column appears in the Times-Journal.

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