Gingerbread – made with a combination of spices – has been an established European food tradition for over 800 years and goes back to ancient Roman times. Celebrated as a festive food, in the form of cakes, balls (or nuts) biscuits and pieces (used to make elaborate designs such as houses), gingerbread is whatever you want it to be, and 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 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, and 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.
And 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 bear figures are expensive.
Crispy pepparkakor are known in Europe as gingersnaps despite being more like ginger breads than ginger biscuits. Another product of the monastic life, they 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 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.
These days the gingersnap is more like a gingerbread, and is 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 treacle, brown sugar, butter and egg replaced the honey, and other spices were added.
500 g pastry flour 175 g molasses 125 g butter, cubed 100 g brown sugar 1 egg, beaten 30 g ginger, ground 15 g cinnamon, ground 10 g cloves, ground
Melt molasses and sugar over a low heat for ten minutes, add spices, bring to the boil, then allow to cool.
Pour into a large bowl, whisk in the egg.
Sieve the flour into the bowl, work into a dough. Cut 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.
Bake each tray for 12 minutes.
Cool pieces on a wire rack.
A 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.
These 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.
Dough 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 45 g vanilla sugar 25 g walnuts, chopped small 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
Glaze 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.
The 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’.
Dough 700 g flour 500 g liquid honey 300 g sugar 150 ml kirsch 100 g almonds and hazelnuts, chopped 100 g lemon and orange candied peel, chopped 30 g cinnamon, ground 20 g baking powder or 10 g potash 15 g clove, ground 15 g nutmeg, grated Cardamom, pinch 1 lemon, zest
Glaze 150 g sugar 100 ml water 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 5x5cm 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.