“And I had but one penny in the world, thou shouldst have it to buy gingerbread.” – William Shakespeare, “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” 1598
Getting gingerbread just right can be difficult, especially if you want to build a gingerbread house.
Too soft, and the walls won’t support the roof. Too hard, and no one wants to eat it.
And what’s the point of doing all that work if you can’t break off a piece to enjoy with your morning coffee?
Making gingerbread houses during the holidays is a tradition in my family. Mom makes the gingerbread. The rest of us – no matter how old we are – get to build and decorate. But eating Mom’s gingerbread is the best part.
After more than 30 years, Mom has found a mixture that stays moist, yet is strong enough to sustain construction – with the help of a few toothpicks. (“They’re like support beams,” Mom says.)
She wants flavorful and soft but substantial gingerbread. So she rolls the dough thicker than most recipes recommend. And, Mom’s formula uses a blend of both honey and molasses for a firm yet slightly spongy texture.
The finished product represents a couple of sets of instructions and the outcome of countless collapses – roofs as well as walls – frosting fights and mostly fond memories.
That first year, the mixture and measurements were off, and we basically built gingerbread shacks. We glued walls together with way too much frosting, laying pieces of gingerbread flat across the tops; our lopsided shanties couldn’t support gable roofs.
Despite construction woes, we had fun building the beginnings of a holiday tradition.
More than once after moving away, I made the drive over the Cascade Range with a fully constructed, plastic-wrapped gingerbread house sitting on the back seat. I’ve carried deconstructed gingerbread houses on planes, separating walls and roofs with sheets of wax paper and laying them flat in plastic containers for more convenient air travel. When I haven’t been able to make it home for the holidays, Mom mailed them.
This year, she flew to Spokane with gingerbread slabs, and we spent a recent Saturday in construction mode, carrying on our beloved holiday activity.
As always, Mom cemented the roof in place with toothpicks. When they poked through the gingerbread, she said, “That’s where you put candy” – or extra frosting.
“Frosting,” Mom said, “will fix everything.”
Gingerbread dates back much further than our family tradition. It’s believed some form of the sweet existed in ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt.
According to Steven Stellingwerf’s “The Gingerbread Book,” the spiced cake may have been brought to Europe by 11th-century crusaders coming back from the eastern Mediterranean. It was a popular treat in medieval times throughout Europe, especially at fairs, and by 1598 gingerbread landed a line in William Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost.”
In Poland, cake-like gingerbread called piernik, popular at Christmas and one of my grandmother’s favorites, dates to the 13th century. Similarly, pain d’épices, or spice bread, is a French classic that sometimes includes ginger.
And in many countries, including Germany – where gingerbread houses were popularized after the 1812 publication of “Hansel and Gretel”– there are two forms: the cake-like version and a harder, flatter sometimes crispier kind associated with cookies or biscuits.
English colonists brought gingerbread to North America. The first published American recipe is likely from Amelia Simmons, author of 1796’s “American Cookery.” For “Soft Gingerbread to be baked in pans,” it recommended: “Rub three pounds of sugar, two pounds of butter, into four pounds of flour, add 20 eggs, 4 ounces ginger, 4 spoons rose water, bake (15 minutes).”
Mary Ball Washington, George Washington’s mother, is credited with creating her own version, featuring West India molasses, a wine glass of brandy, orange rind and raisins. She supposedly served some to the Marquis de Lafayette – along with a mint julep. (For her recipe, visit The Spokesman-Review’s Too Many Cooks blog at www.spokesman.com/ blogs/too-many-cooks)
About 200 years later, Mom made her first batch.
She baked sheets of somewhat-lumpy gingerbread, then attempted to cut out slabs for construction. “I didn’t know what I was doing,” she said. “I did it for the experience” – not for appearances.
Throughout the decades, our little lean-tos became cabins, then cottages. These days, they actually do resemble houses, complete with gable roofs. They’re not elaborate, gourmet-looking dwellings. They definitely look homemade.
We still err on the side of ample frosting, and some years they start getting eaten as soon as construction is complete. They always taste like home.
This recipe is adapted from Christmas Honey Cookies (piernikowa krajanka swiateczne) in “The Art of Polish Cooking” by Alina Zeranska (Doubleday, 1968) and Stina’s Pepparkakor (Scandinavian ginger cookies) in “Seattle’s Child” (December, 1981).
½ pound plus 4 teaspoons butter or margarine (Mom uses half salted and half unsalted butter)
2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup dark molasses
1 cup honey 1/4 cup plus 1/3 cup water
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons allspice
3 tablespoons cinnamon
3 tablespoons ground ginger
1 1/2 tablespoons cloves
1 teaspoon nutmeg
3 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
8 to 9 cups flour, sifted (Mom uses half all-purpose, half wheat flour)
1 cup sour cream
Combine butter, sugar, molasses and honey in a large saucepan. Stir over low heat until the butter is melted and the mixture comes to a slow simmer. Remove from heat and allow to cool. In a separate bowl, whisk water and eggs. Once butter mixture is cool, blend in salt and spices using a wooden spoon. Add baking powder and baking soda. Then, blend in flour a cup at a time. After working in about 4 cups of flour, add half of the egg mixture and half of the sour cream, blending until well mixed. Blend in two more cups of flour. When mixed well, add remaining eggs and sour cream, stirring until smooth. Refrigerate overnight (or up to a week). If you’re making it ahead, the dough can be frozen for up to six weeks.
With a floured rolling pin, roll portions of chilled dough on a well-floured board to desired thickness. Mom aims for slightly more than ¼-inch, “thicker than pie crust and regular cookies.” Add flour a little at a time as you work and roll out the dough until it no longer sticks to your hands, rolling pin and board. Using a butter knife and paper or cardboard patterns, cut out desired shapes, then transfer pieces to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes or until browned. Cool slightly on the pan before transferring to cooling rack. Allow gingerbread to set overnight before building your gingerbread house.
Yield: Three medium houses (Depending on how thick you like your dough, there might be some leftover for cookies.)
From MarthaStewart.com via Martha Stewart Living (March 1997)
Mom prefers thicker, creamier frosting on her gingerbread houses. So she typically uses the store-bought variety. However, royal icing – which hardens well – helps cement walls and roofs in place – especially if you are foregoing toothpicks in your construction. Glycerin, available at drug stores, provides an extra-glossy sheen.
2 large egg whites, or more to thin icing
4 cups sifted confectioners’ sugar, or more to thicken icing
Juice of 1 lemon
3 drops glycerin, optional
Beat the whites until stiff but not dry. Add sugar, lemon juice and glycerin (if using); beat for 1 minute more. If icing is too thick, add more egg whites; if it is too thin, add more sugar. The icing may be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
Note: You can substitute 5 tablespoons meringue powder and 1/3 cup water for raw eggs. Raw eggs should not be used in food prepared for pregnant women, babies, young children or anyone whose health is compromised.