By Andrew Hind and Maria Da Silva
Imagine the excitement of a child’s face shortly before Christmas when Mom pulls out an assortment of colourful and delicious candies in preparation for making together the holiday favorite that is the gingerbread house. Other than opening presents of course, for many children building a gingerbread house or making dozens of delicious gingerbread cookies is the most memorable part of the holidays.
The same appeal holds for adults. To warm up the whole house and fill the air with delicious yuletide scents, there’s nothing better than spending an afternoon making gingerbread. In a season of traditions, there are few more timeless and cherished.
“Gingerbread has been made for centuries. It has been made in the Netherlands and Germany since the early Middle Ages but it’s more popular than ever,” says Nancy Dame, pastry chef at Deerhurst Resort and a woman with contagious enthusiasm for both baking and the holiday season. “Its unique flavor is all about the spice ginger, which originally was very rare.”
Ginger, the key spice in the making of gingerbread, seems to have reached Europe by the 11th century, brought back by those who traded in the Middle East and by soldiers who fought the Crusades in the Holy Land. It quickly became a valuable trade item: it was rare, had numerous medicinal uses, and was prized as a preservative and as flavouring for the dull foods that typified the medieval diet.
Ginger was expensive to use, so it was only available to those with money, specifically the nobility and the clergy. Monks began experimenting with ginger in their recipes and gingerbread is generally accredited to them. The monks carved elaborate likenesses of religious symbols and saints into wood and poured the dough into these wooden moulds for baking. The result was a cake, called lebkuchen. Typically, these gingerbread cakes were served at Christmas to honor God.
Eventually, the upper classes caught on to the idea of gingerbread to celebrate the holy season, but their cakes were often less religious in design.
The center of the ginger trade was Nuremberg, in Germany, which became famous for its gingerbread cakes and cookies, baked by a special guild. The guild was formed in 1643 as a means of quality control and as a way to limit competition in making the lebkuchen gingerbread. The quality of the Nuremberg guild’s gingerbread was so high that it was even used as currency for paying city taxes. The lebkuchen was also considered a gift worthy of heads of state and royalty.
As time went by, traveling became easier and shipping methods improved. As a consequence, the price of ginger and other spices from the east dropped, which made them available to a larger segment of the population. For the first time, the masses began to enjoy gingerbread, but it wasn’t until the early 1800s that gingerbread began to take the form of cookies rather than a cake. At first they appeared in a variety of shapes and forms, but cookie cutters shaped as boys – supposedly inspired by the tale of Hansel and Gretel – began to appear, and it wasn’t long before the gingerbread boy was the norm rather than the exception.
Later, settlers brought the tradition of making gingerbread cookies to North America, and they put their own stamp on it. Here, gingerbread cookies were often cut into shapes suitable for use as ornaments and then hung from Christmas trees. After Christmas, children would pluck the ornaments from their perches and eat them, a special treat that had tempted them for weeks.
Gingerbread houses, which Germans call hexenhausle, or ‘witches houses’, appeared later in the 19th century. Made from large slabs of lebkuchen cake and decorated with sweets, they were apparently inspired by the home of the evil hag in Hansel and Gretel, who lured children into her clutches with the promise of candies.
“One reason why gingerbread has become so popular is because it’s so easy to make. Anyone can do it, including kids” Dame asserts.
Don’t try to mix the dough by hand; to ensure the ingredients are thoroughly blended it’s important to use a power mixer
After getting the dough ready for rolling out, Chef Nancy brings out her tools of the trade: a huge spatula for lifting the rolled dough and huge rolling pins. First, she dusts the working surface with flour. Then, as she’s rolling out the dough, she slides the spatula under to check if it’s sticking. If it is, she simply moves the dough to the side and sprinkles a little more flour.
To make cookies, simply press cutters into the dough, slide them onto a baking sheet and into the oven. It’s that easy. “Because they’ll last months, you can use gingerbread cookies as decorations,” Chef Nancy explains. “With a straw, poke a hole in the gingerbread before you bake and again after they come out (the dough will expand in the oven). This enables you to run ribbons or strings through them and hang them on the tree.
Making a gingerbread home is a bit more involved. It begins with planning, Chef Nancy explains. “You have to envision the home you want and design it beforehand. You’re an architect. You have to understand the building’s structure and make it self-supporting.”
Prefabricate the house first in cardboard to make sure all the pieces fit together, and then trace it out on the dough. If you want doors or windows, now’s the time. You don’t have to be perfect in cutting out the walls because the dough will change shape a bit while baking.
Place the dough on baking trays and place into an oven preheated to 350 degrees. It only takes about 15 minutes to bake. “Overcooking is the number one mistake people make. Pull them out when the top is still spongy, because the dough is still baking over the next 30 minutes as it cools down,” Chef Nancy says
Waiting for the gingerbread to cool, Chef Nancy speaks about Deerhurst’s famed gingerbread lobby.
The Deerhurst chefs had always had a display of Christmas treats – Yule logs, for example – in the hotel lobby, but when Nancy arrived she took it over and transformed it into an oasis of holiday cheer.
“I made it gargantuan and so much fun. The lobby becomes so festive: the smell of ginger and cinnamon is heavenly, and it’s all sparkle and bling with the houses,” she says. “Each year is a different theme,” she explains. “One year I did a replica of every building on the Deerhurst property, and last year, in honor of the G8 meetings held at Deerhurst, I made a building representing each of the participating countries.”
Every year, the resort holds a Gingerbread Competition in December. A $10 contribution to the Salvation Army allows guests the opportunity decorate a house with all the candies they want, courtesy of the resort. 50-odd people participate each year, and a crew of judges picks the winner. Of course, participants get to keep their house. That same day, Chef Nancy’s masterfully crafted gingerbread homes are raffled off, with all proceeds once again going to the Salvation Army.
Once the gingerbread has cooled, brush it with an apricot glaze (made from apricot jam or preserves mixed with water), to give it a nice shine and a stickiness that helps hold the house together.
Now is where the fun begins. Icing in a piping bag is used almost like mortar, holding the walls together. But you have to work fast because it dries quickly, and you have to get the right consistency: too thin and won’t have any adhesive strength, too thick and you won’t be able to squeeze it from the piping tube. Using a base (Chef Nancy uses floor tiles from a dollar store) helps give the building stability and allows you to create landscapes around the building.
Once all the sides are together, you can start decorating. Anything from jellybeans to Smarties, pretzels to chocolate covered almonds and more can be used to jazz up your creation.
“When you start putting candies on the house begins to develop its character and personality. Tell a story with the home,” says Chef Nancy with obvious passion. “Anything is possible with enough practice, including turrets, curved walls, and snow-draped eaves. And you can find inspiration anywhere: magazines, books, even driving around the neighborhood.”
One great tip: To replicate freshly fallen snow, dust icing sugar over the home. The apricot glaze will ensure it sticks to the roof and walls.
Gingerbread is a traditional part of the holiday season and it can take numerous forms – it can be soft or hard, dark or light, heavily spiced or mild, made into cookies or cakes, frosted or plain. But regardless of the form it takes, gingerbread remains a cherished part of the holiday season many centuries after it first appeared.
“Being creative together brings a family together. It’s a great Christmas tradition,” says Chef Nancy. “I think there should be gingerbread in every home at Christmas.”