Gingerbread has been an established European food tradition for over 800 years. Known in Roman times as a vehicle for the exotic spices from the east, the tradition gradually spread to the rest of Europe.
Celebrated as a festive food, in the form of cakes, balls (and nuts) biscuits and pieces (used to make elaborate designs such as houses), gingerbread is whatever you want it to be. There is sufficient evidence to show that clever cooks took advantage of the myriad ingredients to produce big and small culinary masterpieces.
The base for gingerbread was honey (and still is in many countries) combined with a variation of six spices – cardamom, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, pepper and ginger, dried and ground into a powder.
The clever cooks of Slovenia and Sweden in particular do not regard gingerbread as a mere food item. For them it is more, a warehouse of hard and soft biscuits to be erected and decorated, adorned with creams and icings and nuts and candied sweets. For them gingerbread and its adornments are bricks and slabs made with butter, cream, flour, honey or molasses, milk, nuts, peel, soda, spices and sugars, mortar and plaster made with butter, cream and sugar in much the same way that a real house is filled with beauty, creativity and love, a gingerbread house is filled with flavour, creativity and all things sweet and unctuous.
Elsewhere in Europe gingerbreads are celebrated with creations that are simple, such as the spice nuts of the Netherlands, or with creations that are complicated, such as the gingerbread biscuits and cakes of Germany.
In Switzerland they make gingerbread without ginger!
It is there in the plateau below the Alps, bordering France and Germany, that the bakers continue to follow the older tradition by producing honey biscuits and pastries flavoured with spices.
These honey gingerbreads tend to be made in all shapes and sizes, and none taste the same. Each baker uses recipes passed from the generations but are fond of a tweak now and again. They also follow the tradition of using potash (calcium carbonate) instead of bicarbonate of soda to put air into their gingerbread creations. What elevates their gingerbread onto a different level is their deliberate choice of fresh ingredients. The quality of honey is the difference between a piece of gingerbread with a depth of flavour so strong you can taste the forest and one that is inferior. This also explains why their gingerbread bears are expensive.
Gingerbread Cake ENGLANDThis is an old English recipe adapted from the imperial measurements. Moisture is the secret to the success of these spongy gingerbread cakes, so expect to make several attempts to get it exactly right. We used Chinese stem ginger soaked in syrup. The flour is soft wheat anything around type 450.
- 450 g white wheat flour, sieved
- 336 g syrup
- 284 g milk
- 225 g ginger nuts, chopped small
- 225 g brown sugar
- 175 g orange, juice and grated rind
- 170 g butter
- 1 egg
- 15 g ginger powder
- 12 g baking powder
- Tip of knife bicarbonate of soda
- 5 g salt
Line three loaf tins with greaseproof paper and scatter ginger pieces along the bottom of each tin. In a saucepan melt the butter, syrup and sugar over a low heat. Grate the orange rind into the butter mixture, add the juice and leave to cool. Sieve the flour into a large bowl and add the baking powder, ginger powder and bicarbonate of soda. Add the egg to the milk. Use an electronic whisk or mixer to combine all the ingredients. Divide the batter between the three tins. Preheat oven to 180ºC on the fan, put tins in oven. Bake at 180ºC for 30 minutes, reduce heat to 170ºC for ten minutes. Test with a small knife or skewer, if it comes out clean the cakes are ready. Allow to cool in the tins.
Pepparkakor SWEDEN gingersnapsCrispy pepparkakor are known in Europe as gingersnaps despite being more like ginger breads than ginger biscuits. Another product of the monastic life, pepparkakor got their name because ground ginger was believed to be a member of the pepper family. They made a good travelling food, eventually making their way into Sweden in the 13th century. Adopted as a traditional treat, they became associated with Saint Lucia during the end of year festivities. Originally made with flour, honey and ginger, they evolved to include cinnamon and cloves, raising agents and softeners like butter and cream. The round shape gave way to numerous shapes, from christmas trees to hearts and stars, while the old rounds and squares were made thicker to be used as building blocks for the construction of gingerbread houses. The gingersnap was flavoured with all kinds of spice, fruit essence and coated with icing. They are crushed in cheesecakes and trifles, served with cream cheese and smoked salmon and stacked with cream fillings. Gradually the recipe evolved, molasses or syrup or treacle, butter, egg and sugar replaced the honey, and other spices were added.
- 350 g white wheat pastry flour
- 125 g honey
- 125 g butter
- 100 g almonds, ground
- 100 g brown sugar
- 1 egg, beaten
- 15 g cinnamon, ground
- 15 g ginger, ground
- 10 g cloves, ground
- 5 g baking powder
Melt butter, honey and sugar over a low heat for ten minutes, add spices, bring to the boil, leave to cool. Pour into a large bowl, whisk in the egg. Sieve the baking powder, flour and ground almonds into the bowl, work into a dough. Cut into four pieces, refrigerate for an hour. Roll first piece on a floured surface as thin as possible, without letting the dough break. Cut into rounds, about 80 pieces. Arrange on greaseproof paper on baking trays. Repeat until dough is used up. Preheat oven to 180ºC. Bake each tray for 10 minutes. Cool pieces on a wire rack.
Pepparkakor modern versionCream or milk started to replace butter, ginger came to the fore, soda was used to give the biscuits a lift and the dough was rested before rolling.
- 500 g white wheat pastry flour
- 150 ml cream, whipped
- 100 g brown sugar
- 100 g golden syrup / molasses
- 30 g ginger, ground
- 10 g baking soda
- 5 g white pepper, ground
In a large bowl add the sugar to the cream, fold in the molasses or syrup, then the ginger and soda. Sieve flour into the mixture, refrigerate for eight hours. Cut dough into six pieces. Roll first piece on a floured surface as thin as possible. Cut into rounds or squares, about 80 pieces. Arrange on greaseproof paper on baking trays. Repeat until dough is used up. Preheat oven to 200ºC. Bake each tray for 12 minutes. Cool pieces on a wire rack.
Kruidnootjes NETHERLANDS ginger nutsA freshly ground sweet spice mix is the starting point for these aromatic nuts. It can be bought ready packaged but home grinding and grating whole spices gives a fresh kick to these nuts. Traditionally the spice mix is 2:1 cinnamon to each of cloves, ginger and nutmeg with a lesser amount of white pepper. Intrepid bakers also use cardamom, coriander, fennel and anise.
- 250 g flour
- 125 g brown sugar
- 100 g butter
- 45 ml milk
- 15 g traditional spice mix (speculaas)
- 1 tsp baking powder
- Salt, large pinch
Sieve flour and baking powder into a large bowl, mix in spices and salt. Add sugar, cut in the butter, the milk, one tablespoon at a time until the dough is firm but soft.
Rest dough for one hour.
Preheat the oven to 150°C.
Cut the dough into 10 g pieces, roll into balls and place on a lightly buttered baking tray.
Bake for 15-20 minutes, shorter for softer nuts.
Kruidnootjes are part of the tradition associated with the spiced moulded biscuits produced on Saint Nicholas Day – known as speculaas in Belgium and the Netherlands, spekulatius in Germany.
Lebkuchen GERMANY gingerbreadsThese gingerbreads are neither one thing nor the other anymore. Traditionally made into a sticky dough with candied fruit, eggs, nuts, honey and spices, and associated with Nürnberg (in 1643 the city’s gingerbread bakers formed a guild), lebkuchen are baked throughout alpine Europe, with countless variations that have nothing in common. Even the traditional spice mix is missing from some versions. Other versions omit ginger, some are known to contain cream, and several use spelt instead of wheat flour. This version remains faithful to the honey, nut and spice content. It includes all of the spices that were known to 11th century bakers, and suggests the wild flower honey that made them irresistible to children of all ages through the generations.
- 255 g sugar
- 215 g hazelnuts fine ground
- 180 g (3) eggs
- 80 g forest / wildflower honey
- 60 g spelt flour
- 50 g candied lemon peel, chopped small
- 50 g orange, zest
- 25 g walnuts, chopped small
- 45 g vanilla sugar
- 10 g candied ginger, chopped small
- 4 g cinnamon, ground
- 3 g allspice, ground
- 3 g ginger, ground
- 1 g anise, ground
- 1 g baking powder
- 1 g cardamom, ground
- 1 g cloves, ground
- 1 g coriander, ground
- 1 g nutmeg, ground
- 65 g icing sugar
- 10 ml kirsch / brandy
- 10 ml red wine
Blend eggs and sugar into a froth, add remaining ingredients and leave to rest overnight. Spoon 80 g of the mixture into 12 moulds. Bake at 180°C for 30 minutes. Leave to cool, then apply the glaze.
Basler Läckerli SWITZERLAND gingerbread biscuitsThe Basler Läckerli is a small, rectangular gingerbread biscuit (without the ginger), thin glazed and dusted with icing, a much harder bite than the Belgian and Dutch variety. It is one of several Swiss variations of gingerbread that began when oriental spices arrived in 11th century monasteries. Läckerli is believed to mean ‘to lick’.
- 700 g flour
- 20 g baking powder or 10 g potash
- 500 g liquid honey
- 300 g sugar
- 30 g cinnamon, ground
- 15 g clove, ground
- 15 g nutmeg, grated
- Cardamom, pinch
- 100 g almonds and hazelnuts, chopped
- 100 g lemon and orange candied peel, chopped
- 1 lemon, zest
- 150 ml kirsch
- Glaze (100 ml water to 150 g sugar); icing sugar
Bring honey and sugar slowly to a boil, simmer until sugar dissolves, cool. Mix nuts, peel and spices with the zest and kirsch. Sift the flour and baking powder into a large bowl, gradually adding the honey syrup and the nut paste. Knead into a pliable dough.
If using potash, mix with cherry brandy.
Roll the dough out to a depth of roughly 6mm onto two greased parchment sheets, place on baking trays making sure the dough is evenly distributed all around.
Rest for an hour.
Preheat oven to 200°C.
Bake for 20 minutes.
Make the glaze and apply evenly, dust with icing sugar.
Cut into 5 x 5cm rectangles.
Making a large batch is worth the effort. Kept in air-tight containers they will stay fresh for several months, slices of apple will soften them.
Läckerli are broken into pieces and dissolved slowly in the mouth.
Replace wheat flour with rye flour to get the authentic 17th century version.
Older recipes use more almonds, usually the same amount as the sugar.
Many homes added milk to the mixture, at a ratio equal to the honey and flour, the milk mixed with the honey. Some homes added eggs, mixing them with the sugar.