2017-12-14 / From The Garden

Holiday Gingerbread Tradition Lives On

By Cynthia Gibson

There are three spices that instantly bring to mind the Christmas holiday: ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg. At times, cloves are included in the mix. Christmas is the time for baked goods for gifts, friends and family, and this golden threesome of spices has been the basis for making cookies to celebrate the winter solstice since Medieval times.

The spices themselves were as precious as sugar. If sugar was not available, honey or molasses would be mixed into the cookie or cake batter for sweetness.

Since the 1400s, families would save money to make treasured and special gingerbread cakes. The Germans are responsible for making the gingerbread house. These houses were spectacular. Not only were the walls and roofs made from delicious gingerbread, the houses were covered in homemade barley candy, peppermint candies, foil and gold leaf.

The gingerbread house became the centerpiece of Christmas decorating in the 17th century, along with the Christmas tree. It is remarkable that the tradition of making a gingerbread house for Christmas has survived to this day.

James Gibson is eager to take a bite. 
(Photos by Cynthia Gibson) James Gibson is eager to take a bite. (Photos by Cynthia Gibson) Locally, the grandest gingerbread houses can be found at the Newport mansions. This holiday season, an intricately fashioned gingerbread replica of each of the mansions, created by local pastry chefs, is on display in each of its kitchens.

The gingerbread man, like the gingerbread house, has a story all its own. Figure-shaped gingerbread “biscuits” (cookies, to us), European history tells us, were first created at the court of Elizabeth I of England. She had the gingerbread “men” baked and presented in the likenesses of some of her important guests. Not your everyday gingerbread man, these cookies were fashioned in the images of her courtiers, dignitaries and most men in her court.

Cynthia Gibson is a gardener, food writer and painter. She gardens and tends her miniature orchard in Newport. Cynthia Gibson is a gardener, food writer and painter. She gardens and tends her miniature orchard in Newport. As the gingerbread man was so admired, it migrated to chefs, cooks and finally the homemaker, to create the simpler gingerbread men and women we know and love today. The French love them, the Germans adore them, as do the Nordic countries.

The Germans have taken the gingerbread house, man, woman and other shapes and have turned the art into a serious Christmas business. In fact, the finest Christmas markets are in Germany and France, and the Germans make huge hearts out of gingerbread that have a ribbon loop going through a small hole at the top of the cookie. Special messages are written on the cookies, which are given to children, friends, spouses and others we love. There are also gingerbread hearts made for the person you admire, with hopes of love in your future.

Every Christmas at our home you will find gingerbread men in their own cellophane bags tied with a holiday bow in a basket. Should someone stop by, they all leave with this special holiday treat. I spend two days baking and two days decorating my small army of gingerbread men! It is the small token of giving thanks for a friendship, or as a treat for a family member. Regardless of who gets the cookie, they seem to enjoy the crunch, the little “Red Hots” (the little cinnamon dots we used to eat as kids) that I use for buttons on the gingerbread man’s suit, and the thought that went into making the cookie. It is a great holiday tradition. Easy to do, too!

Children love to help with making gingerbread men at Christmas. Let them help decorate and place the Red Hots on the cookies, once they’ve cooled. Use a simple white icing and a simple piping kit to add eyes, smile and frills to your gingerbread men. Children really want to be included, and usually there is at least one cookie for them for helping!

Here is my classic, no-fail recipe for making gingerbread men this Christmas.

Gingerbread Man Recipe

Yields two-dozen five-inch gingerbread men

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ tsps. baking powder
1 tbsp. baking soda
¼ tsp salt
1 tbsp. ground ginger, more if you
like your cookies spicy
1 tbsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. ground nutmeg
¼ tsp. ground cloves (optional)
6 tbsp. unsalted butter
¾ cup dark brown sugar
1 large egg
½ cup molasses
2 tsps. vanilla

In a small bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, ginger, cinnamon and cloves until well blended.

In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the butter, brown sugar, and egg on medium speed until well blended. Add the molasses and vanilla, continue to mix. Gradually add the dried spice and flour mixture in the small bowl. Mix all ingredients so that you see no streaks of white from the flour, and the dough is all one color. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it rest for two hours. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Line two large cookie sheets with non-stick foil (the best!) or parchment paper sprayed with cooking oil. Divide the dough into two separate balls. Sprinkle your rolling surface with a small handful of flour, and sprinkle your rolling pin as well, to avoid stickiness, and roll out your dough so that it is one quarter inch thick. Sprinkle with flour as needed. Do this until all the dough is used.

With your cookie cutter, cut your gingerbread men or women, or deer, or Christmas trees (cutters of your choice) and place them two inches apart on the cookie sheets. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes. As soon as you smell the gingerbread, it is almost done. Check the oven for brown edges on the cookie for doneness. Remove them from the oven and let sit until they are almost room temperature. Then move them to a wire rack for final decoration. You will really have a difficult time keeping friends and family out of your kitchen.

And this is one gingerbread man who won’t get away!

“Run, run, run as fast as you can. You’ll never catch me, I’m the gingerbread man.”

From “The Gingerbread Boy,” May 1875, St. Nicholas Magazine

Return to top