Gingerbread is thought to be the oldest biscuit there is. Ginger has been used as a preservative for hundreds of years and the spices are said to warm the blood. In fact gingerbread dates back to ancient times when ginger was known for its medicinal properties, often used as a cure for stomach aches – ginger products are still recommended to help in particular with morning sickness during pregnancy (now there’s a good excuse for gingerbread if ever I heard one!)
History of the Gingerbread
Crusaders returning from the Middle East in the 11th Century brought the new spice with them and, as the cost of the ingredients and spices dropped, gingerbreads slowly became more popular across Europe & Britain. The English added breadcrumbs to the recipes and in the 16th & 17th centuries, flour replaced the breadcrumbs to make gingerbread lighter and more like the version we know today.
It is said that important visitors to the court of Queen Elizabeth I were impressed with gingerbread portraits – so this is where the first gingerbread men were made!
The Brothers Grimm’s fairytale of Hansel and Gretel in the early 1800’s inspired the tradition of baking gingerbread houses and, as Christmas became more commercial over the years, gingerbread biscuits and decorations became an integral part of the season.
This is a recipe I’ve adapted from trying out different ones – I use cinnamon as well as ginger because I love the smell and taste of the cinnamon at Christmas-time. I’ve found that this is a good strong recipe to make houses from as well, as you want the house to stand up, not bend under the weight of your sweets!
125g unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
75g soft brown sugar (either light or dark is fine)
90g golden syrup
1 large egg
400g plain flour
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1/2 tablespoon ground ginger
1/2 tablespoon ground cinnamon
(and don’t worry about being too precise – a few grams either way will be just as delicious :-) )
- Weigh out the butter, sugar and golden syrup into a bowl and beat until light anf fluffy (electic mixer is miles easier if you have one!)
- Lightly beat the egg with a fork to break it up (it’ll all mix together fine in the mixture, so don’t worry too much about how well you beat it, unless little hands like to do it ;-) )
- Add the egg to the sugar mixture a little at a time and carry on beating well.
- Gradually add the sifted flour, bicarb and spices until all mixed together (this can be messy with flour flying out with an electric mixer, so you might want to cover the mixer with a tea towel to stop it going everywhere – and use a slow speed setting!)
- Tip out the mixture onto a piece of clingfilm, wrap completely and put it in the fridge for an hour or so to chill. It’s fine for the mixture to be in the fridge overnight, too, though you might want to take it out half an hour before you want to use it, otherwise you’ll end up feeling like you’ve been to the gym when you roll it out ;-) )
- When you’re ready to roll ;-) tear off a good length of baking paper to roll out your mixture on and sprinkle it with flour. This means if it does stick, it sticks to the paper not your table or work surface and it’s easier to lift off. Roll out your dough to about half a cm thick or so – (a bit thicker if you’re making a larger house).
- Cut the shapes you want – we love doing Christmas trees, people – we’ve seen a fun idea online of turning a gingerbread man upside down to make a reindeer – snowflakes, houses etc.
- Place your pieces on a sheet of baking paper on a baking tray, leaving a little gap between them, and bake at about 160 degrees C for a fan oven, 170-180 degrees C for non-fan, for about 10 – 15 minutes until colored and browning gently, depending on your oven and the size of the shapes.(Tip: if you’re making shapes for houses, cook them a little bit crisper as they’ll hold better)
- To stop the shapes spreading too much in the oven, a lot of recipes say to put the tray of cut shapes in the fridge for 20 minutes before baking. This will hold the shapes to the right size, but in my experience, few people have room in their fridge for a baking tray or two to sit for 20 minutes, plus when you’re cooking with kids it adds another waiting time for them to lose interest in and it doesn’t help with the cooking if you have more gingerbread to bake than you have trays or oven shelves, so it’s just not practical! So, I’ve found that as long as you roll out the dough while it’s still nice and chilled, you should be fine. And it’s only critical if you’re doing a house that needs exact sizing to fit it together – other shapes won’t matter anyway and most of the houses I’ve done I’ve made allowances in the sizes so there’s ‘contingency’ space anyway ;-)
- When cool, let the kids loose on decorating them with sweets!
- Use icing as ‘glue’ – I always use royal icing, as it sticks well and dries nice and hard, holding the sweets on well, but there’s no reason you couldn’t just use a thick icing sugar and water mix or one of the ready-to-use tubes. You can also buy Royal Icing icing sugar, so presumably it already has dried egg white powder in it and you just add water. Royal icing is icing sugar mixed with egg white rather than water. In reality, it’s best to use the dried egg white powder you can get from most supermarkets – these come in 5g sachets which you mix with water as per the instructions and then just add sifted icing sugar until it’s a nice thick, sticky consistency which holds it’s shape and isn’t runny. Piping the icing on yourself and letting the kids stick the sweets on is probably easier and more efficient than letting the kids lose with it with a spoon!). Use a star shaped nozzle for a nice detail.
Have fun and enjoy!