There are few foods as closely tied to winter and the holiday season as gingerbread, and few with as long a history, as rich and varied as the treat itself.
Its origins run so far back, they’re unclear. Some sources point to Greece in 2400 BC as the first known recipe for gingerbread, others to ancient Egypt, circa 1500 BC. But its introduction is most associated with medieval Europe, when imported spices – ginger was one of the first to be cultivated in China around 5000 years ago – were symbolic of wealth.
“Gyngebreed” (as poet/philosopher Geoffrey Chaucer spelled it back in the 1300s) was made out of breadcrumbs and honey spiced with ginger, pepper, cinnamon and clove, a mixture that could be easily moulded into shapes – hearts, stars, symbols, people – that suited the occasion.
Gingerbread houses were first constructed in 16th-century Germany, where Nuremberg was considered the gingerbread capital of the world. (Bakers there still use a centuries-old recipe for lebkuchen.) Edible houses rose in popularity after the Brothers Grimm fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel was published in 1812.
Like the old-timey versions, modern-day gingerbread comes in many forms. It can be thick and cakey, soft and chewy, or thin and snappy; it can be cake, loaf or cookie, house or star or person. But gingerbread in all its forms keeps well, travels well, freezes well and improves in flavour after a day or three. Gingerbread is inexpensive, as far as holiday baking goes, requiring no nuts, dried fruit or chocolate, and is surprisingly simple to make plant-based. And there is truly no better aroma than a batch of gingerbread in the oven.
Recipe: Dense, Chewy Gingerbread with Cider Caramel
This wonderfully chewy, cakey gingerbread just happens to be vegan. It gets better after a day or two at room temperature, and it freezes well. If you like, warm up squares in a small skillet with a dab of butter. The cider caramel is optional, but so delicious, and will keep in the fridge for ages. (If you’re having a hard time finding brown sugar, you can make your own by blending about 1 tablespoon molasses into 1 cup white sugar.)
1 cup packed brown sugar
3/4 cup canola or other mild vegetable oil
1/2 cup molasses
1/2 cup golden syrup or liquid honey
1 tbsp grated fresh ginger (optional)
1 1/4 cups water
6 soft pitted dates or prunes, chopped
1 tsp baking soda
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tbsp cinnamon
2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp fine salt
1 cup apple cider
1/4 cup butter (dairy or plant)
1/2 cup packed brown sugar (or demerara sugar)
1/4 cup whipping cream or coconut cream
Preheat the oven to 350 F and butter or line a 9-inch square or round baking dish with parchment.
In a large bowl, whisk together the brown sugar, oil, molasses, honey (I measure the molasses and honey in the liquid measuring cup that just had oil in it) and the fresh ginger, if you’re using it.
Put the water and chopped dates (or prunes) into a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and stir in the baking soda. Whisk into the sugar mixture. In a small bowl, stir together the flour, cinnamon, ground ginger and salt and add to the sugar mixture, whisking until well blended. Pour into the baking dish and bake for 40 minutes, or until slightly domed and springy to the touch.
To make the caramel, heat the cider in a small saucepan over medium-high until it reduces by about half. Add the butter, brown sugar and cream, bring to a simmer, reduce the heat (watch that it doesn’t bubble over) and cook for 5 to 8 minutes, until it thickens slightly. Serve the cake warm, drizzled with warmed caramel.
Both gingerbread and sauce can be made days ahead (or even weeks/months, the gingerbread frozen); serve both warmed, if possible. Serves 9 to 12.
The Globe’s annual holiday crossword is almost here!
Look for it online Tuesday, Dec. 19 and in the paper Saturday, Dec. 23