Final Proof: Sweet, spicy gingerbread
November 20, 2023
By Jane Dummer
From honey cakes to nostalgic specialties, learn more about this holiday favourite
Gingerbread is a delicious baked good enjoyed by many at holiday events worldwide. The origin of gingerbread takes on a few stories. One identifies the first known recipe for gingerbread is from 2400 BC Greece. Another suggests it began around 1500 BC in ancient Egypt. It is thought that modern-day gingerbread is an adaptation of the honey cakes found in the pharaohs’ tombs. Honey cakes were a popular source of energy for ancient Greeks, Egyptians and Romans on their lengthy and difficult journeys, due to the cake’s satisfying taste and long shelf life.
Around the 11th century, spices including ginger, cinnamon and pepper were imported from Asia and distributed in Europe. With time, the honey cake recipes were modified to incorporate spices to resemble modern-day gingerbread. Then the gingerbread history becomes ambiguous. The first mention of Lebkuchen (gingerbread in German) was made in Ulm in 1296. After that, the recipe spread in the monasteries across the Holy Roman Empire with gingerbread being associated with church festivals and events including Christmas.
The gingerbread house is another significant point in gingerbread’s evolution. Gingerbread houses originated in Germany during the 16th century. These sophisticated cookie-walled houses associated with Christmas were beautifully decorated, sometimes with gold leaf. Their popularity rose when the Brothers Grimm wrote “Hansel and Gretel,” in which the main characters stumble upon a house made entirely of treats deep in the forest.
Today gingerbread houses remain popular. Every November, the Centre for Hospitality and Culinary Arts at George Brown College hosts its Gingerbread House Competition. Sue Fleming, Red Seal pastry chef and instructor, explains, “It has been an annual event since 2008 for the Baking, Culinary and Hospitality students. The theme this year is Main Street. Students will produce a showpiece representative of a building from their hometown main street. It could be a hardware store, a church, a mosque or even a bakery. Generally, the students decorate the buildings to reflect a winter scene, but this is not a requirement. We look for how well the skills have been executed and how many different skills are displayed. Piping should be even and clean, not smudged or shaky. No icing sugar thumb prints on walls. Did they use gelatin sheets for windows, or did they pour isomalt windows? Lastly, we are looking for creativity. Did they just do the facade, or are there tiny marzipan treats in the window?”
From late October until the end of December, people drive from more than 200 kilometres to purchase the gingerbread creations at the Bakery of Heidi and Willy in Alfred, Ont. Heidi and Willy Suter, pastry chefs and owners, describe their tradition: “Since our heritage is European, numerous customers are looking for traditional European specialties. That means the gingerbread needs to be soft and spiced differently compared to Canadian gingerbread. Freshness, quality and uniqueness are the attributes that resonate with customers. They can purchase online, by phone or in store. They must pick up the products in store. We do not ship due to fragility and freshness. Our products are handmade and one of a kind. The price ranges between $5 and $11.25. Ginger Bites are made of soft gingerbread coated with honey and cacao powder. Gingerbread Hearts and Rounds have a Marzipan filling. Gingerbread Trees come with a dozen assorted cookies. Gingerbread people and ginger biscotti are also available.”
The holiday season is filled with nostalgia and childhood favourites. Thinking of both, Stubbe Chocolates in Ottawa features a seasonal Swiss gingerbread specialty Basel Leckerli. It’s a high-quality gingerbread specific to the city of Basel in Switzerland since the 15th century. It’s available in store from mid-November until Christmas. Chef Heinrich Stubbe says, “The smell of gingerbread baking is pleasant comfort for me. We’re replicating the recipe process to reflect when being a Gingerbread Baker was a distinct profession. We order specific gingerbread spice from Germany. Along with lemon peel and orange peel, plus Kirsch liquor from the Black Forest, the recipe has a unique taste and texture that our customers love. Each Basel Leckerli gingerbread is a rectangle (3 cm x 8 cm) decorated with fondant and chocolate swirls. It is sold at $8 for a deck of four.”
Enjoy a gingerbread filled holiday!
Jane Dummer, RD, known as the Pod to Plate Food Consultant, collaborates and partners with the food and nutrition industry across North America. janedummer.com
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