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DECEMBER
 2000 ISSUE

 


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By Alice Ross

Gingerbread and Christmas are a traditional fit. This spicy treat has been a holiday player for
centuries, ever since Medieval Crusaders returned from the Middle East bringing home a hitherto unknown series of foods that would become its essential ingredients—spices, sugars, almonds and citrus fruits. Catholic monks began to bake gingerbread for saints’ days and festivals, constructing it into specially designed theme "cakes." harth1.gif (85251 bytes) Often depicting celebrated saints and religious motifs, they depended on large and elaborately-carved "cookie boards" that impressed an all-over surface pattern onto a fairly stiff rolled dough. These wonderful early carvings are now rare and all too often seen only in books or museums. Regretably, their limited numbers and high cost have placed the lovely implements almost beyond reach of most collectors.

With increasing secularization, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century decorative themes broadened to include elaborate idealizations of lords and ladies, soldiers, castles and occasionally floral or geometric patterns. These too are fairly scarce these days. With the costs of ingredients still high, it is most likely that they were prepared by commercial bakeries—particularly by the guild bakers of Europe—or in more privileged households.

With the gradual drop in the cost of exotic ingredients, gingerbreads slowly became more accessible, and certainly at holiday times. European cuisines developed such treats in their own culinary styles. For example, they were often offered at English country fairs. One might save a coin or two for the gingerbread booth, where the Gingerbread Woman sold molded cookies decorated with gaudy colors and gilt. Her recipe was likely to call for a boiled mixture of honey, wine, bread crumbs, and spices. Hers was a cooked and thickened dough (not baked,) a descendent of the medieval style. Her forms were inspired by the commonplace images of daily life—men, women, the sun and the moon, flowers, birds or animals.

Across the English Channel in the Lowland countries, the visit of Sinter Klaus, or Saint Nicholas, ushered in a long month of feasting, including the fanciful commercially-baked Speculaas cookies. These were also shaped by representations of daily life and work—windmills and farm animals, farm men and women. Like the earlier medieval cakes, these were embellished by pressing carved cookie boards onto the rolled dough, imparting ornate surface detail. Some were clearly the characters of well-known folk tales and legends. And hence the gingerbread houses associated with Hansel and Gretel. In addition, special German "lebkuchenforms" (lebkuchen is another form of gingerbread made with honey) were designed and used. One surviving seventeenth-century mold depicts a sunburst in celebration of the winter solstace and the lengthening day.

In fact, a good many of the large boards we see here today are imports that date from the nineteenth and early twentieth century. One fascinating Dutch board in my collection shows the long life of these cookie forms in Europe—one side is covered with figures in traditional dress, and the other side, apparently carved in a more careless style by another artist at a later period, includes a car, bicycle and a hot air balloon among the more predictable rural references.

And there were other European gingerbread variations. The French made a yeasted pain d’epices, or "spice bread," which called for ginger, allspice, (or cloves,) aniseed and honey in the old way. Italian Panforte, a dense rich gingerbread, was almost candy-like, and enriched with nuts and dried fruits. After shaping into loaves, it was baked slowly and served in slices and like so many confections of the time, were more often prepared commercially than at home. A specialty of Siena, it was said that during the seasonal baking just before Christmas, one could detect the mouth-watering, spicy fragrance from miles away.

In colonial America, New Englanders rejected Christmas celebrations as one way of reinterpreting Anglican activities. Their gingerbreads continued to find favor, but were no longer specialties of that holiday. Cookie boards had continued to be used for Christmas baking within the Lowland communities (particularly as Dutch speculaas and German speculatius). And so it was only logical that around 1800 they developed a new holiday association, this one New Year’s Day, originally a Dutch observance and the most commonly celebrated New England winter holiday. Master carver John Conger of New York is particularly remembered for his fine detail and graceful patterns.

However, the boards appear to have disappeared slowly from mainstream American kitchens and bakery windows of the century. An occasional vestige remains today—the spicy Dutch "windmill cookie" (the old specula's) was, until fairly recently, marketed in supermarket cookie aisles, and are scarce today, if they are available at all.

And then there were cookie cutters—emphasizing the outline of the cookie rather than its surface. "Hard" gingerbreads had emigrated with early settlers in various ethnic forms. In Pennsylvania, they were shaped by hand into little pudgy men or Christmas "Mummeli" (Weaver, 1993). The English simply cut them from rolled dough with a glass or a tea cup (Hannah Glasse, London: 1747). It remained for the growing nineteenth-century tin industry to develop the primitive art form of cookie cutters, apparently under the influence of the developing new Germanic Christmas in America. Queen Victoria and her German husband Albert led the way even across the ocean. Even non-German Americans embraced the Christmas tree and lavish baking, reinstituting references to English yule logs, mistletoe and boars’ heads. Thomas Nast, the famous nineteenth-century cartoonist, shaped our modern Santa from the Lowland Father Christmas figure, and with the help of the budding candy and greeting card industry, Americans were nudged into a new iconography. Pennsylvania Dutch tinsmiths of the time are still famous for their contribution of inventive shapes.

Cookies shaped with tin cutters became tree ornaments. They were first hung on the early table-top trees, and later adorned the larger floor ones. Annual holiday baking sprees produced the multi-form cookies destined for decorations, stockings, and platters—usually "several wash baskets full." As was reported in the York True Democrat in 1868, "Cakes of various forms and quality droop from the different limbs, birds of paradise, humming birds, robins, peewees, and a variety of others seem to twitter among the evergreens." And of course the usual old figures and local motifs abounded—stars, moons, and suns, boys’ and girls’ toys, animals, and human figures were common, and later the evolved Santa figure. During the late nineteenth century, with increasingly commercial Christmas observance, they took on the created images of the season—wreaths, stars, Santas, elves, stockings, snowmen, trees, sleds, toys. And no bakery window could do without gingerbread houses. And these were, of course, the associations we still have with the holiday’s traditional motifs.

Although the cookie boards disappeared, tin cookie cutters remained as a standby in home kitchens, and to this day their proliferating patterns characterize much of our holiday baking. With the common problem of limited time for baking these days, we may be returning to a situation in which they are limited to Christmas again. And the gingerbread boys and houses so reminiscent of Hansel and Gretel somehow remain. While in the past, the more ambitious cooks (and certainly bakeries) designed and constructed their own edible edifices. Now one can buy kits with which to mold a solid gingerbread cake-house; still wonderful but blandly all looking the same. Perhaps it is telling that these "soft gingerbreads," or light cakes, were a largely-American off-shoot of the gingerbread family, and were not previously considered Christmas specialties. Such cakes filled an altogether different place in culinary history, being the province of home bakers rather than commercial bakeries, and enjoyed year round as a homemade staple dessert. The following recipes will give you a choice between the early medieval-renaissance boiled gingerbread and the more recent baked ones, those that require a carved cookie board and those that work with tin cookie cutters. They are all fun to make, deliciously edible and make lovely ornaments.

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Alice Ross brings 25 years as a dedicated food professional teacher, writer, researcher and collector to her Hearth Studios, at which she teaches workshops in various aspects of hearth, woodstove and brick oven cookery. She has served as consultant in historical food for such noted museums as Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg and The Lowell National Historical Park in Massachusetts. Ross wrote her doctoral dissertation in food history at the State University at Stony Brook. Currently, she is involved in a major kitchen report on Rock Hall Museum, a 1770’s Georgian mansion on Long Island. Dr. Ross’ e-mail address is aross@binome.com. Her web site is www.li.net/~aross
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