photo by Proofofthepudding.
Well, look who the fox dragged in!
No Cookie Party would be complete without the most famous Christmas cookie of them all. I would have featured the Gingerbread Man earlier, but I’ll be danged if I didn’t have the hardest time catching up with the little rascal! I had to promise to bake him a gingerbread girlfriend before he’d agree to spend a little time with us.
You know, I’m surprised the G Man can still walk, let alone run. He’s been around such a long time. In the 11th century, the Crusaders brought ginger to Europe from the Middle East. Its medicinal powers were well known even then, and when the spice was used in bread it acted as a preservative.
The first gingerbread was actually a baked block of honey, breadcrumbs, ginger, and other spices. It was elaborately decorated and given away as gifts. Beautifully carved wooden molds (some pretty large), were pressed onto the gingerbread in the designs of pigs, hearts, men, rabbits, and fleur-de-lis. They would then be painted with saffron or cinnamon, or even gilded.
By the mid 16th century, treacle (molasses) replaced honey, and flour replaced breadcrumbs. Soon eggs and butter were added, giving the gingerbread more of a cake-like texture. Queen Elizabeth I is credited with the first actual man-shaped cookie, since she liked to give important visitors gingerbread likenesses of themselves. Pretty clever, I’d say.
Her Royal Gingerness
Then, once Grimm’s tale of Hansel and Gretel came on the scene, German bakers went beserk with elaborate gingerbread houses, castles, manger scenes, edible greeting cards and tree ornaments. Gingerbread became recognized as a profession, and as late as the 17th century, only professionals were allowed to bake it in France and Germany. Restrictions were lifted during Christmas and Easter, though, and Nuremberg became the "Gingerbread Capital of the World."
In this country, gingerbread cookies were first known as "cakes," and were the most loved cookie of early American children. It was probably popular because it was plentiful and cheap, easy to make, and hard to ruin, whether baked in a brick oven or a cook stove. Today, you can choose from a multitude of cookie cutters to fashion the gingerbread men, women, children, and animals of your dreams. In our house, we make gingerbread teddies (big surprise).
Earliest print versions date from 19th century Germany and Norway, featuring fat pancakes on the run. In the U.S., the story first appeared in St. Nicholas Magazine (1875). A childless woman creates a gingerbread boy who jumps out of the oven and runs away, progressively taunting everyone he meets with the phrase, "I’ve run away from a little old woman, and a little old man, and I can run away from you, I can."
G Man goes global
I must say I admire the G Man’s bravado and superhuman ability to run like an Olympian even though he’s never run anywhere before and probably doesn’t even know where he’s going. I don’t blame him for running away from the disturbed woman who baked something with a human likeness so she and her husband could eat it.
But did he have to brag the whole time? And taunt and tease? You have to admit he’s adorable in some ways. Strangely enough, I’ve never really felt sorry for him at the end. Have you?
And so now, part of American holiday tradition is to bake these cute rapscallions, give them currant eyes, buttons and mouths, even clothe them with frosting, just so we can turn against them. I struggle with this inherent guilt every year. My secret is that I don’t bond with my gingerbread men. I bake them, but I don’t name them. I never engage them in meaningful dialogue. I don’t gaze at them lovingly or admire their cuteness. And I always bite their heads off first.
GINGERBREAD MEN COOKIES
(makes 24 cookies)
2-1/4 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup shortening
1/2 cup light molasses
1-1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp double-acting baking powder
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1. Into large bowl measure all ingredients except currants. With mixer at medium speed, beat ingredients until well mixed. Cover and refrigerate 1 hour.
2. On lightly floured surface, with floured rolling pin, roll chilled dough 1/8 inch thick. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
3. With 5-inch long cutter, cut out men. Reroll trimmings and cut more cookies. With pancake turner, place 1/2 inch apart on cookie sheets.
4. On each cut out, place currants to represent buttons, eyes and mouth.
5.Bake 8 minutes or until browned, then, with pancake turner, remove cookies to racks.
(from The Good Housekeeping Illustrated Cookbook, Hearst Books, 1980)
Please join us at the Cookie Party! Post your favorite recipe, then leave the link in the comments, or email your recipe to: readermail (at) jamakimrattigan (dot com). Don’t forget you can always access all the recipes by clicking on the Cookie Party link in my sidebar.