Gingerbread dates back to medieval times and originally referred to a cake-like bread flavoured with ginger. These days it can also refer to a biscuit or cookie. The word biscuit means “twice baked”, much like drying a rusk, the original gingerbread may have been dried to make a biscuit.
The link to Christmas (and fairy tales)
Gingerbread probably became linked to Christmas because in European winters, fresh produce was rare, so most sweets treats were based on dry pantry items that kept a long time (like flour and spices). Ginger is also said to aid digestion, so perhaps best eaten after a big Christmas meal? Whatever the reason, it is synonymous with Christmas, and kids all around the world have a blast decorating their gingerbread houses.
Gingerbread also features heavily in European fairy tales such as Hansel and Gretel and the tale of the Gingerbread Man who ultimately falls prey to the hungry, wily Fox. Perhaps these references to my childhood are what make the smell of freshly baking ginger cookies so evocative.
Some ginger biscuits are soft (like a gingerbread man) and some are crisp (like a ginger nut). (See below for recipes).
You can vary your recipes a little to suit your personal taste. For instance, if you want a darker, slightly more bitter cookie, try replacing the golden syrup with molasses. In general, recipes with less syrup and no egg tend to be crisper.
Here is a list of substitutions that you can safely make with most ginger biscuit recipes depending on what is available and your personal taste (use equal measurements to those stated in the recipe):
Syrup – golden syrup, molasses, honey, treacle, maple syrup
Sugar – granulated sugar, brown sugar, demerara sugar, treacle sugar, muscovado sugar
Ginger – cinnamon, mixed spice, nutmeg, cloves, or any combination of these
If baking for small children, consider reducing the ginger slightly as some children find it too sharp.
Cooking times vary depending on the recipe and your personal taste. If you want a crisper dryer biscuit (that can be stored for longer) increase the cooking time and lower the temperature of the oven by 20°C, test by lightly touching the cookie, if it is firm to the touch then it will be crisp (remember they do firm up more once out of the oven so don’t over-cook them. If you want a softer, chewier biscuit, cook at 180°C, but check the biscuits after 10 minutes. Touch one lightly and if it leaves a slight indent but seems set, then they are ready.
Rolling out dough
The thickness of your dough will also change the crispness of your gingerbread. The “normal thickness” is between 6 and 8mm thick. But you could roll them out thicker or thinner depending on your preferences. Just remember to keep your thickness uniform when baking. If you mix thick and thin cookies on one sheet some will burn before the others are cooked through. For very thin or very thick cookies adjust the cooking time accordingly.
Top tip: When rolling out your dough, roll it between two pieces of plastic (like a document sleeve cut open like a book) so you don’t need to use additional flour which can dry out your dough and make it crumbly.
Tips for making a Gingerbread House
• When making gingerbread houses, select recipes with little or no raising agent, as these are less likely to spread. If you are using a template to cut out your walls and roof, you don’t want a product that spreads too much, and causes your walls/roof to become misshapen and difficult to construct.
• Refrigerating the raw shapes before cooking can also help reduce spreading.
• Gingerbread houses can be assembled using royal icing or chocolate. Before assembling decorate each wall and the roof pieces and leave to set completely. It is much easier to stick sweets and decorations onto a vertical surface rather than fighting gravity trying to stick them on after the house has been constructed.
• Make a plan for your decorations.
• Assemble your walls around food tins for support and leave the walls to set completely before attempting the roof (remove the tins before adding the roof).
• Don’t skimp on the “mortar”, be generous with the royal icing or chocolate glue.
• Check that your roof fits before finishing off the walls. Most templates have guidelines for this.
• Support the edges of your roof while it is drying, they can slide off easily.
Storing your biscuits and houses
Crisp biscuits can be stored in an air tight container for 3 months, softer chewier biscuits for 1- 2 weeks. Gingerbread houses should be stored away from light and dust, a cake box is perfect.
RECIPE: Ginger Nuts
Traditional crisp biscuits, with a strong ginger taste, store well.
120g self-raising flour
2.5ml bicarbonate of soda
Pinch of salt
Extra sugar for sprinkling
Sift the dry ingredients and add the sugar. In a small saucepan melt the butter (if desired you can brown it slightly by letting it bubble for a short time, this will give your biscuits a nutty taste). Add the syrup to the warm butter and heat through.
Add the syrup mixture to the dry ingredients and mix to form a stiff dough. Divide the mixture into 12 equal portions, and roll these into balls. Space them well on a greased cookie sheet. Press down with a fork and sprinkle a little extra sugar on top of each cookie.
Bake at 180°C for about 10 minutes. Makes 12 cookies.
RECIPE: Gingerbread Men “Raisins for eyes, cinnamon drop mouth and chocolate chips for buttons”
125g butter (room temperature)
125g caster sugar
125g treacle or syrup
400g self-raising flour
10ml ground ginger
Melted chocolate to decorate (about 200g)
Cream the butter and sugar. Add the egg and treacle and mix well. Sift the dry ingredients and add to the butter, knead lightly to form a soft dough. Roll out to 8mm thickness between two pieces of plastic and cut out your desired shapes, place on a greased cookie sheet. Re-roll your trimmings until the dough is used up. Bake at 180°C for about 10 minutes.
Remove the cookies from the baking sheet, and place on a wire rack to cool. Melt the chocolate for decorating, and place in a small plastic bag. Cut a small hole in one corner of the bag and tie off the top. Pipe eyes, mouth, buttons, hands and feet on each gingerbread man, or if preferred dip the cookie in the chocolate to coat half of the cookie. Set aside to set.
RECIPE: Gingerbread House
The perfect mix for making houses, as it is quite dry, keeps well and does not spread.
2.5ml baking powder
185g butter (room temperature)
185g treacle sugar
Royal icing or melted chocolate for assembly. Assortment of sweets and chocolates for decoration.
Sift the dry ingredients together. In a separate bowl, beat the butter and sugar together. Add the syrup and eggs and mix well. Knead lightly and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 30 minutes before rolling out. Once chilled, roll out each piece and place on a greased cookie sheet. Use a template and cut around the template with a sharp knife. Cut on the cookie sheet so you do not have to lift the pieces and risk misshaping them. Don’t forget to cut out any windows and doors. Place in the fridge for a further 30 minutes, then bake at 190°C for 10 minutes (until they are starting to colour around the edges). Remove the sheets from the oven and leave them to cool on the tray. Once cool decorate each side, and leave to set. Then assemble using sweets and chocolates to decorate.
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