This time of year we see many confections made with gingerbread. It has long been woven into the fiber of American history. George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, developed a recipe for gingerbread cake in 1784. Gingerbread was Abraham Lincoln’s ‘biggest treat’ and he invoked a gingerbread anecdote in his Lincoln – Douglas debates. Witches used gingerbread men as voodoo dolls in the early 17th century.
During the late Middle Ages, Europeans had their own version of gingerbread. The hard cookies, sometimes gilded with gold leaf and shaped like animals and kings and queens were a staple at Medieval fairs in England, France, Holland and Germany.
Queen Elizabeth I is credited with the idea of decorating the cookies in this fashion, after she had some made to resemble the dignitaries visiting her court. Over time some of these festivals came to be known as Gingerbread Fairs, and the gingerbread cookies served there were known as ‘fairings'.
Shapes of the gingerbread changed with the season, including flowers in the spring and birds in the fall. Elaborately decorated gingerbread became synonymous with all things fancy and elegant in England. The gold leaf that was often used to decorate gingerbread cookies led to the popular expression ‘to take the gilt off of gingerbread'. The carved, white architectural details found on many colonial American seaside homes is sometimes referred to as ‘gingerbread work’.
Gingerbread houses originated in Germany during the 16th century. The elaborate cookie-walled houses, decorated with foil in addition to gold leaf, became associated with Christmas tradition. Their popularity rose when the Brothers Grimm wrote the story of Hansel and Gretel, in which the main characters stumble upon a house made entirely of treats deep in the forest. It is unclear whether gingerbread houses were a result of the popular fairy tale, or vice versa.
Recently the record for world’s largest gingerbread house was broken. The previous record was set by the Mall of America in 2006. The new winning gingerbread house, spanning nearly 40,000 cubic feet, was erected at Traditions Golf Club in Bryan, Texas. The house required a building permit and was built much like a traditional house. 4,000 gingerbread bricks were used during its construction. A recipe for a house this size would include 1,800 pounds of butter and 1,080 ounces of ground ginger.
Gingerbread gets its name from the ginger root and its color from molasses. The ginger root has long been associated with many health benefits. It is thought to aid in digestion, be an anti-inflammatory aid, help with menstrual cramps and morning sickness, fend off disease, and even relieve some of the nausea associated with motion sickness. Some folks use it to relieve heartburn as well. It is usually made with a variety of spices, including brown sugar, molasses, granulated sugar, honey, and/or light or dark corn syrup.