This year I feel the countdown to Christmas has completely slipped through my fingers: even with the aid of a beautiful advent calendar, a couple of trips to Christmas markets, and mince pies distributed to my students on the very last day of term, I feel I have reached Christmas rather unprepared: just the time to hop on a flight, with some gifts still to wrap in sparkly Christmas gift paper, and not to mention the ones still to buy! Normally, I would do quite a lot of baking in the time before and during Christmas: to me, there is no candle or home fragrance which can beat the actual smell of vanilla, cinnamon, ginger and candied fruit to sweeten up the air in preparation of Christmas – some of you will remember Capote’s fruitcake I made last Christmas. This year, Amy made our Christmas preparation, a most beautiful gingerbread house, and I was lucky enough to come back home yesterday and find I was surrounded by other, equally delicious gingerbread biscuits prepared by my mother.
Why do we associate gingerbread with home comfort now? Why do we look for spices in the dark time of the year? Most European countries have a traditional variant of gingerbread: England has a type of gingerbread which is effectively as moist and sponge-like as a cake (a variation called parkin is also popular in the North of England); in France you can find a similar product called pain d’epices (“spice bread”), while Germany has popular Lebkuchen (often covered with chocolate or icing, and famously from Nuremberg); at Ikea you will find Swedish pepparkakor, and similar biscuits are baked in the rest of Scandinavia and the Baltic; Switzerland has a few variations of this recipe, too. The South of Europe seems to lack its own take on the gingerbread, and to have borrowed an international recipe for gingerbread men: gingerbread cookie cutters are now sold everywhere, and gingerbread biscuits can now be considered a common, cross-cultural Christmas sweet. I still remember trying to imagine the flavour of imaginary biscotti allo zenzero (‘ginger biscuits’) as found in some translated children’s story, and failing to: I would be left toying with the sound of word only, with its double cutting, sharp, spiced ‘z’ having my tongue tip twice against my palate – quite an exotic rarity.
I had no idea then that these biscuits would commonly come in man-shaped form. There is something almost uncanny in the idea of making (and eating) man-shaped biscuits, and also in their popularity across the globe, which takes us back precisely to the Brothers Grimm’s fairytale ‘Hansel and Gretel’. The witch’s house in the story is commonly associated with gingerbread, although in fact there is actually no textual evidence for the material of which the house is made:
‘[Hansel and Gretel] followed [the bird] until they came to a little cottage of which it settled itself.
When they got quite near, they saw that the little house was made of bread, and it was roofed with cake; the windows were transparent sugar. […]
Hansel stretched up and broke off a piece of the roof to try what it was like. Gretel went to the window and nibbled at that.’ (p. 103)
As the two children encounter the witch’s house in the woods, they immediately start munching on it: it is clearly all made of edible, sweet ingredients, but nowhere it is specified as gingerbread. The children nibble at the house creepily, and are then captured and fed to satiety by the witch: the whole house is indeed the physical actualization of temptations (it is a huge dessert, after all) and the witch forces the children to eat so as to make them plumper, and savour them. In the end, as we all know, the children manage to escape this dreadful end and it is the witch that ends up in the oven and dies, while baking like a gingerbread biscuit. So, ultimately, we somehow perpetuate this fairytale again and again by eating the gingerbread man: it somehow satisfies our most hidden gluttonous desires by making its spiced flavour tingle upon our palate, as well as its crispy texture linger in our mouth. We have eaten the evil witch turned into gingerbread – only the gingerbread man is sweeter, and innocent, and smiling, nearly a sin to eat it!
Before leaving you with Amy’s gingerbread (biscuit) recipe, and with the pictures of our creation, Amy and I would like to thank my mother (Nico) for sewing these beautiful blog-inspired tea towels to celebrate the blog’s first year of life back in November! Happy Christmas everyone 🙂
Amy’s Gingerbread Recipe and Instructions on how to build a Gingerbread House:
|400g plain flour|
|1tsp bicarbonate of soda|
|4 tbsp golden syrup|
|200g muscovado/light brown sugar|
|2tsp ground ginger|
|200g icing sugar|
|3 boiled sweets|
|1 large bag chocolate buttons|
|1. Melt the butter, sugar and syrup in a large pan.|
|2. Remove from the heat and add the flour, bicarbonate and ginger. Mix into a dough.|
|3. Wrap the dough in cling film and put in the fridge for 15 minutes.|
|4. When chilled, roll out the dough to about 0.5cm thick and cut using a gingerbread house template.|
|5. Put shapes on oven trays lined with baking paper and return to the fridge for 10 minutes (this helps the dough keep its shape when baking).|
|6. If adding stained glass windows, crush the boiled sweets using a rolling pin and put about half a sweet in each window. These will melt during baking.|
|7. Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees centigrade.|
|8. Bake the gingerbread for 15 minutes. It should be well baked and have a rich brown colour.|
|9. Cool the gingerbread on the tray, then remove to a cooling rack. Make sure it is completely cold before assembling the house.|
|10. Mix the icing sugar with a little cold water. It should be thick, but still able to pipe.|
|11. Stick the walls of the house together using the icing. It is easier to do this on the plate or cake stand you are going to use! Let them set.|
|12. Cover the roof in icing and stick on chocolate buttons and sweets. Again, leave so that the icing sets.|
|13. Use icing to stick the roof on to the walls. You may need to have something at hand to hold the roof in place while the icing hardens. We used a stacks of cups!|
|14. Add any final touches, such as icicles or more sweets.|
The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Trans. Edgar Lucas. New York: Doubleday & Co., 1909.