Gingerbread has been around for a long time, but the recipes used to make it have changed considerably over the years. Initially gingerbread was made from breadcrumbs, ginger, and a sweetener, like honey. People discovered that ginger has preservative properties and used it accordingly.
The recipe for gingerbread changed, and by the 15th century (the 1400s), the breadcrumbs had been replaced by flour. Honey was replaced with molasses. The biscuit became lighter. Some recipes made sweet, thin crisps of ginger and others were thicker and more biscuit-like.
Pictoral scenes that told stories were carved in wood and the gingerbread was rolled and pressed into them.
It was first made into figures (like people) n the 16th century (the 1500s). Queen Elizabeth I of England is credited with the first gingerbread men.
Queen Elizabeth was queen of England starting in November of 1558. (She was the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.) Queen Elizabeth was known for having well dressed courtiers in her court. She has been credited with the first gingerbread men. The story goes that she had gingerbread cookies made and decorated to look like her favorite courtiers, and had the cookies presented to them.
Gingerbread men tend to have vague shapes. For instance, the legs do not have definite feet, and they certainly don’t have any toes. The arms don’t have definite arms, and they definitely don’t have any fingers. Gingerbread women are equally simple in design. Gingerbread expands when it bakes, even recipes without eggs. As a consequence, the cookies work better when they are not overly detailed.
The detail work comes into play when you decorate these cookies.
So, gingerbread men and women needed houses, chairs, tables, beds, wagons, trees, and livestock that is also made out of gingerbread, and bakers created these.
The Brothers Grimm wrote Hansel and Gretel in 1812. The story told of a witch that wanted to eat the children, Hansel and Gretel. She fattened them up with candy and other sweets, and the children munched on a house made of gingerbread. Gingerbread houses became popular at that time, especially in Germany.
Gingerbread houses are popular in the United States and many parts of Europe, but oddly, not England. These houses are most common during the Christmas season, but also work well for every other holiday. Valentine’s Day houses are decorated with pink, red, and white candy. Halloween houses have ghosts popping out of them and are often purposely constructed “wrong.” The only limits with gingerbread houses are your imagination and the size of your cookie sheets. (I like to design one or two each year from index cards. Remember that gingerbread is thicker than paper, but put together the cards into whatever kind of house you can design.)
My favorite recipe for gingerbread houses is called ” the alternate recipe.” I replace the shortening with butter and use corn syrup instead of molasses.