Nothing quite gets me into the festive season like baking a batch of gingerbread biscuits. The smell that fills the whole house as they bake is, for me, a real sign that the holidays are just around the corner. Perfect to bake with children: everyone loves to pick their favourite cutter; claim their cookies; and decorate them in their own style.
Whether it’s a gingerbread man, woman, snowflake or tree, gingerbread has been a traditional, festive bake for centuries. The first recorded mention of gingerbread biscuits shaped like people date back to the court of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603). The Queen requested that gingerbread biscuits be made in the shape of some of her esteemed guests. Today, we tend to prefer the traditional, round-limbed silhouette of the gingerbread man.
A brief history…
Gingerbread is claimed to have been brought to Europe in 992AD by an Armenian monk, Gregory of Nicopolis. Later, in the 15th century, production of gingerbread biscuits in Germany came under the control a gingerbread guild. Other European countries also treated gingerbread baking as a discipline, distinct from others within their bakers’ guilds. This was serious business.
By the 17th century, gingerbread baking had become restricted, with only professional gingerbread bakers being permitted to bake it. The exception was at Christmas and Easter, when anyone was allowed to bake it. It was at that time that documents start to refer to the trade of gingerbread as a commercial venture. Gingerbread biscuits were sold in monasteries, pharmacies, and at farmers’ markets. In Medieval England, gingerbread was believed to have medicinal properties due to the spices they contained. Today, ginger is still revered for its antibacterial properties (albeit, not usually baked into a biscuit!)
It’s all in the shaping.
In the 17th century, gingerbread biscuits were often intricately shaped, especially during religious festivals and on the coronation of new monarchs. The most elaborate of designs featured iced patterns and gold leaf. The tradition of making decorated gingerbread houses, meanwhile, did not become popular until the early 1800s. Many attribute the art of building highly-decorated gingerbread houses to the Brothers Grimm’ fairtytale, Hansel and Gretel, which featured a witch who lived in a gingerbread house and lured children into her grasp. Gingerbread houses gained even more popularity once they were introduced to America (particularly, Pennsylvania) by German immigrants.
My recipe for gingerbread biscuits is extremely versatile. If you double the recipe, it will make enough for a simple gingerbread house. Alternatively, you can make Christmas tree decorations using a star- or tree-shaped cutter. Simply poke a hole in the top (at least 5mm from the edge of the biscuit) before baking. Simply tie a loop with string once cooled and decorated, then hang for all to enjoy. This really is a recipe ideal for those with a creative side. Give them a try!
And if you need a recipe for royal icing (used to decorate and to stick on chocolates and gum drops) check out my post on how to make perfect icing, every time.
- 350 g plain flour
- ⅛ tsp bicarbonate of soda
- 2 ½ tbsp ginger ground
- 1 tsp cinnamon ground
- ¼ tsp nutmeg ground
- 120 g butter chilled
- 175 g light brown sugar
- 4 tbsp golden syrup
- 1 egg large, free-range
- Royal icing (or a tube of writing icing)
- Smarties/gumdrops/jellybeans for buttons
- Chocolate chips for eyes etc.
- Preheat the oven to 175°C and line two baking sheets with baking parchment.
- Sift together the flour, bicarbonate of soda, ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg into a clean bowl.
- Add the butter to the flour mix and rub together to make a fine breadcrumb texture.
- Next, add the brown sugar and stir to combine. Make a well in the centre.
- In a separate bowl, whisk together the golden syrup and egg then pour into the dry ingredients.
- For this part, I like to use my hands… Mix together the wet and dry ingredients, folding the dough until all of the wet ingredients are incorporated and the flour is hydrated. Be careful not to over-mix, though, as this will create a tough biscuit.
- Chill the dough for 30 minutes before rolling out to a 5mm (approx.) thickness on a lightly-floured surface.
- Cut out your biscuits with your desired cutter(s) and place them onto the lined baking sheets. You can place the biscuits relatively close together as they do not spread much in the oven. Chill for a further 10 minutes.
- Once chilled, bake for 25-35 minutes, until firm (but not too brown on the edges).
- Leave to fully cool before decorating in your chosen fashion.