Who doesn’t love combining ginger and molasses. I especially love it in cookies and cakes. I have always thought “gingerbread” referred to the cake-like creation, baked in an 8” X 8” pan. Why it is called “bread” I never questioned. Further, I never questioned why “bread” is in the name “Gingerbread Cookies.” Isn’t that a contradiction in terms? I have a recipe for gingerbread that’s simple to make;. When served warm with whipped cream in the winter, it’s everything a comfort food should be. I even have several different recipes for making gingerbread cookies. Yesterday, when I got out the ingredients for gingerbread and gingerbread cookies, I was curious how the combination of molasses and spices came to be. I guessed that perhaps it has a religious or healing history. Maybe it just came from a combination of customs. I decided research was definitely needed!
The first I learned was that in England gingerbread maybe cake, but it also may be a cookie, which England also calls a biscuit. Well, that certainly didn’t clear up my questions!
Digging further, I learned that during Medieval England, gingerbread meant “preserved ginger” and kept that meaning until the 15th century when English royalty favored foods made with ginger as an herbal remedy and a means of defense against the plague. Queen Elizabeth I served to visiting dignitaries, gingerbread cookies which shared her likeness and created a popularity for gingerbread cookies. It seems this version was made with honey. The cookies we have in North America today were inspired by early settlers.
Early North American settlers opted to make their cookies with molasses, rather than honey. With this change, also came a change in shape, as by now, back home in England, cookies were made in the shape of horses and hearts. In America, the colonists began making their version to resemble politicians and to be served on election days. This may have been a borrowed idea from clever Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III who had gingerbread molded in his likeness and distributed as marketing for his political campaign.
It wasn’t until 1875, when a children’s publication, The Saint Nicholas Magazine, propelled our current archetype into the status it now holds in holiday baking. My Maine readers will love this part of the gingerbread man legend. The Saint Nicholas Magazine published a version of the folktale “The Gin-ger-bread Boy.” It’s a curious recounting of a woman who baked a gingerbread cookie in the shape of a boy. Upon her opening the oven, the gingerbread boy jumped out and ran away. He continued to run from various pursuers until he was eventually eaten by a fox. “Run, run as fast as you can!” …”You can’t catch me, I’m the gingerbread man!” were the sing-song words in this old time folktale.
The author reported “a servant girl from Maine” had told him the story and that she had gotten it from “an old lady from her childhood.” That rendition sounds as familiar of a story as one might hear from Down Easters. I grew up with this story. My spouse told me he never heard it and he thinks it’s a terrible story! Well, I think it was a sign of the times to teach us a lesson. In this case, I assume the lesson to be if you’re made of gingerbread, you’re apt to be gobbled up!
There are varied recipes for making gingerbread cookies. Bakers have expanded to incorporating nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, and cloves, and sometimes adding raisins or cranberries. While I intend to try some new versions with honey, for the holidays, I’m sticking to the “modern” traditional recipe of molasses and gingerbread spices.
½ c dark table molasses
1 c packed brown sugar
2/3 c cold water
1/3 c butter
6 cups all-purpose flour
2 teas baking soda
1 teas salt
1 teas ground allspice
2 teas ground ginger
1 teas ground cloves
1 teas ground cinnamon
In a large bowl or mixer, combine molasses, brown sugar, water, and butter. Mix in remaining ingredients. Cover. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours.
Heat oven to 350F. Roll dough to 1/2” thickness on floured board. Handle sparingly. Too much flour will make a dry cookie. Cut with a favorite cookie cutter. Place 2” apart on lightly greased or lined with parchment paper, cookie sheet. Decorate or sprinkle lightly with granulated sugar. Bake 10 -12 mins. Remove from oven and cool on wire rack. Makes about 2 dozen cookies.