History of Gingerbread: What’s the True Story

Do you know the history of gingerbread? You’re probably familiar with the sweet The Gingerbread Man fairytale, right? It goes something like this:

Run, run fast as you can,
You can’t catch me, I’m the gingerbread man!

But where did gingerbread originate? And why do we bake and eat this delicious treat during the holidays? We decided to indulge our sweet tooth and take a trip throughout time to discover the history of gingerbread. Ready. Grab a snack and get comfy because it’s going to be a delicious ride!

The Somewhat Bittersweet History of Gingerbread

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Whose snappy idea was it to bake gingerbread? To find out, we have to travel throughout history. Let’s start in ancient Greece (2400 BC) and Egypt where they used an early form for ceremonial purposes. Of course, gingerbread was cultivated in ancient China and used for medicinal purposes.

Fast forward to 11th-century, and the crusaders brought ginger back with them from the Middle East. However, cooks who worked for the rich experimented with the spice. Until…

It was affordable for everyone so that you could find gingerbread in many homes. An early gingerbread recipe included almonds, stale breadcrumbs, ginger, rosewater, and sugar. Folks pressed the dough into wooden molds, which could have born the resemblance of queens, religious symbols, emperors, or new kings. Once baked, the gingerbread cookies may have been decorated with white icing or edible gold paint, if one could afford it.

Moving into the 16th-century, the English tossed out the breadcrumbs and used flour instead. They also added eggs and sweeteners which made the gingerbread recipe lighter. Interestingly, Queen Elizabeth I gave dignitaries a gingerbread man baked in his likeness. It knocked their hoses off. And, the spicy treat became popular at fairs and even became known as a token of love.

Food for thought: Before the cool invention of refrigeration, folks would crumble gingerbread to cover up the stench of rotting meat.

Of course, the history of gingerbread wouldn’t be complete without mentioning The Bard, William Shakespeare. The following line is from his comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost and spoken by the clown Costard, “An I had but one penny in the world, thou shouldst have it to buy ginger-bread…”

During this time, unconventional medicine practitioners, often knowns as magicians or witches, would create gingerbread men as love tokens for young ladies. The idea was for a young lass to get a man to eat the gingerbread man that was made for him so that he would fall in love with her.

Food for thought: John Baret said of gingerbread, “It’s a kind of cake or paste made to comfort the stomach.”

Jumping across the pond to 18th-century America, a softer version of gingerbread made an appearance. In fact, George Washington’s Mother, Mary Ball Washington, baked her recipe for the Marquis de Lafayette when he visited her Fredericksburg, Virginia home. The recipe became known as Gingerbread Lafayette and was passed down from generation to generation.

Like the English bakers, Americans shaped honey-spice cookies like creatures and politicians. However, the snappy gingerbread man didn’t take off until 1875 when St. Nicholas Magazine published “The Ginger-Bread Boy” story about a gingerbread man who runs away his pursuers, including, a little old woman, a little old man, a cow, etc. Alas, a fox eventually eats the boy!

Food for thought: “The Ginger-Bread Boy” tale isn’t original as other stories starred baked goods, such as pancakes, known as “Fleeing Pancake” stories. Who knows when the gingerbread man took over, but he’s been the star ever since.

Fast forward to the 21st-century, and gingerbread cookies have become a favorite holiday dessert. But why? It’s believed that the spices warmed you up in the winter. But keep in mind that spices such as clove, nutmeg, and cinnamon made it into the recipe throughout time. You won’t find them in early versions of ginger snaps, cakes, or bread.

Why Do We Create Gingerbread Houses

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If you’ve attended craft fairs, you probably saw a couple of gingerbread houses. Do you know why? You can thank the Brothers Grimm 19th-century fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel” for their popularity. Early German immigrants brought the tradition to America. The idea never caught on in Britain. However, other areas of Europe include gingerbread houses as part of their Christmas decor.

The biggest house, located in Bryan, Texas, 90 miles northwest of Houston, comes in at 35.8 million calories and covers an area of 2,520 square feet, or about the size of a tennis court. It was declared the largest ever by Guinness World Records on December 7, 2013.

Gingerbread Cookies Recipe

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The history of gingerbread wouldn’t be complete without a gingerbread cookie recipe. Ours is pretty easy to follow and make, so you’ll want to add it to your holiday baking. Get your kids and grandkids involved by letting them decorate the gingerbread men. Baking holiday desserts can be a fun treat for the entire family. Grab your cookie sheets and let’s bake some snappy and spicy gingerbread men!

Gingerbread Ingredients

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon ground ginger
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 6 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 3/4 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 cup molasses
  • 2 tsp vanilla

Gingerbread Directions

  1. In a small bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, ginger, cinnamon, and cloves until well blended.
  2. In a large bowl or mixer beat butter, brown sugar, and egg on medium speed until well blended.
  3. Add molasses and vanilla and mix until well blended.
  4. Gradually stir in dry ingredients until blended and smooth.
  5. 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 should be returned to room temperature before baking.)
  6. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line baking sheets with parchment paper.
  7. Place 1 portion of the dough on a lightly floured surface. Sprinkle flour over the dough and rolling pin. Roll dough to 1/4” thick. Use additional flour to avoid sticking. Cut out cookies with your favorite cookie cutters. 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). Remove the cookies from the oven and allow the cookies to rest until cookies are firm enough to move to a wire rack. Let cookies cool completely before decorating or frosting.
  8. Makes 24 5-inch tall cookies.

Let the Aroma of Gingerbread Float Through Your House

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Now that you know the delicious history of gingerbread, consider adding gingerbread cookies to your holiday desserts or gingerbread houses to your Christmas decorations, you’re in for a treat! And the best part is the whole family can participate. In fact, you may want to share your creations on social media with your family and friends, and of course, us. Follow Improvements on Facebook, Instragam, Pinterest, and Twitter! We’d love to see gingerbread desserts!