“The best of all gifts around any Christmas tree: the presence of a happy family all wrapped up in each other.” Burton Hillis
Baking traditional gingerbread is many families’ Christmas tradition, including mine. Books worth of texts exist about the origins of gingerbread. Historians say, an early form of gingerbread can be traced to the ancient Greeks and Egyptians who used it for ceremonial purposes. Gingerbread made an appearance in Europe when 11th-century crusaders brought the spice back from the Middle East for the rich people’s chefs to experiment with. In some places, it was a soft, delicately spiced cake; in others, a crisp, flat cookie or warm, thick, dark squares of “bread,” sometimes served with lemon sauce or whipped cream. It was sometimes light, sometimes dark, sometimes sweet, sometimes spicy, but it was almost always cut into shapes such as men, women, stars or animals, and colorfully decorated or stamped with a mold and dusted with white sugar. Of all the countries in Europe, Germany is the one with the longest tradition of flat, shaped gingerbreads. At every autumn fair in Germany, and in the surrounding lands where the Germanic influence is strong, there are rows of stalls filled with hundreds of gingerbread hearts, decorated with white and colored icing and tied with ribbons. The Grimm brothers, when collected volumes of German fairy tales, they found one about Hansel and Gretel, two children who, abandoned in the woods by penniless parents, discovered a house made of bread, cake and candies.
At Christmas, gingerbread makes its most impressive appearance and when made in advance and stored until Christmas, the deep layers flavours reach their full potential. I have got vivid memories of my dearly loved Swabian grandmother, who smelt like love, home and peace when she baked. Outside of Germany, many Swabians settled in eastern Croatia, southern and eastern Hungary, including part of what is now Serbia and Romania in the 18th century, where they were invited as pioneers to repopulate some areas. Swabians are nowadays said to be frugal, clever, entrepreneurial and hard-working. Angela Merkel has praised the “thrifty Swabian housewife” and suggested Swabian women’s supposed practice of making lots of money but saving it rather than spending it. My grandmother was a true Swabian lady, a strong person, a busy housewife, a serious woman with a hard expression but sweet, gentle touch coming straight from her heart filled with love, that made its print in every one of her baked goods.
“I have always thought of Christmas as a good time; a kind, forgiving, generous, pleasant time; a time when men and women seem to open their hearts freely, and so I say, God bless Christmas!” Charles Dickens
125 g salted butter, diced
1/2 tsp baking soda
280 g plain flour
For the syrup:
3 tbsp water
50 g sugar
2 tbsp treacle
1 tbsp honey
2 tbsp ground ginger
2 tbsp ground mixed spice
Place the syrup ingredients in a saucepan. Cook over medium high heat, stirring regularly until it starts to boil. Remove saucepan from the heat. Add in the cold cubed butter, and stir it into the syrup until all the butter is melted. Add the baking soda, and stir until it is well combined. Pour the mixture into the bowl and leave to cool slightly. Once cooled slowly add in the flour to the liquid mix until all the flour is used up. Wrap in clingfilm, and leave to chill in the fridge for at least 2 hours, preferably or overnight. Once the dough is well chilled, roll it out into a 5 mm thick rectangle. Using cookie cutters, cut out desired cookie shapes, and lay them on a tray lined with baking paper. Chill the cut out cookies in the fridge for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 190 degrees C. Bake the cookies in the preheated oven for 8-12 minutes, cooking times vary depending on cookie size, until the cookies are just firm to touch. Lift the cookies off the baking tray, and cool on a wire rack. Once the cookies are cooled, decorate with royal icing. These cookies keep well in a cool, dry, airtight place for up to a month.
To make the Royal Icing in the bowl beat the 60 g egg whites with 2 tbsp lemon juice until combined. Add 330 g sifted icing sugar and beat on low speed until combined and smooth. Adjust the consistency by adding little water or less icing sugar, depending on the intended use (piping or flooding). The icing needs to be used immediately or stored in an airtight container as royal icing hardens when exposed to air. Cover with plastic wrap when not in use.