Many of the recipes that are commonplace today can trace their roots back to Medieval Europe. Christmas cookies that are highly spiced mainly originate from Germany, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe where as the more shortbread-like recipes hail from England. German lebkuchen, a type of gingerbread is particularly associated with Christmas, but other variations include the lemon and cardamom flavoured krumkake from Norway and papparkakor from Sweden which use ginger and black pepper.
I think that I have established without a doubt my particular fondness for all things ginger flavoured. I think it is the most amazing spice, imparting as it does a spicy heat that just makes your month tingle. It therefore comes as no surprise that I love Christmas gingerbread.
In many ways, the title “gingerbread” is somewhat of a misnomer as there is nothing bread like about these biscuits. Rather, they are quite hard and crunchy but are not unyielding in the mouth. Gingerbread is usually highly decorated, either with chocolate and little sweets, or as I have done here - with piped royal icing. The gingerbread dough can also be simply decorated by impressing it with designs using carved wooden moulds. Some moulds are highly intricate and produce the most beautiful looking biscuits.
The baking and construction of decorative gingerbread houses to display at Christmas time has experienced a revival in recent years. Some food historians believe that the first gingerbread houses may have appeared as a result of the popular Grimm's fairy tales, specifically as a result of the publication of Hansel and Gretel, a fairy tale about two children left to starve in a forest. In the story the children chance upon a house made of bread and sugar decorations. The ravenous children feast upon the sugary shingles. Certainly around the time that Hansel and Gretel appeared the baking of gingerbread houses was hugely popular in Germany, so there would appear to be some truth in the belief that they were inspired by the story.
I have decided that I am going to attempt baking a house this year, but for now, here is the recipe for simple biscuits. If you remember to pierce a little hole in the biscuits prior to baking, you can then thread some ribbon through them later and use them as edible decorations. This is a great recipe; - it so simple to make and puts up with quite a lot of handling without deteriorating.
Ingredients:125g unsalted butter
100g dark muscovado sugar
85g golden syrup
300g plain flour
1tsp bicarbonate of soda
2tsp ground ginger
50g icing sugar
Method:1. Heat oven to 200C/Fan Oven 180C/Gas Mar 6. Line two large baking trays with non-stick baking parchment.
2. Melt the butter, sugar and syrup in a small saucepan. Sift the flour, bicarbonate of soda and ground ginger into a large bowl and then stir in the melted butter mixture to make a stiff dough.
3. Roll out the dough between two sheets of baking parchment until about ½ cm thick. Use cookie cutters to stamp out your desired shapes. Remember to try and place similar sized shapes together on the same baking sheet because depending on the size of the cookie, they may take slight less or more time to cook. If you want to use them as decorations, remember to pierce a small hole in the top of each cookie at this stage.
4. Bake in the pre-heated oven for approximately 10 minutes until just beginning to brown around the edges. Remove from the oven when baked and leave to cool on the baking trays until they harden up. Remove to wire cooling racks to finish cooling completely.
5. Place icing sugar and 1tsp water in a bowl and mix together to form a thick but smooth icing. Place the mixture into a small disposable piping bag fitted with a fine, plain nozzle and pipe out decorative patterns on the biscuits. Allow the icing to set.