“What came first,” my husband asked when I made this gingerbread house last year, “the pastry or the fairy tale?”
Good question. So I looked it up. According to the internet (scholarly fount of all wisdom), there isn’t any clear indication of when the first gingerbread house made its appearance on the scene of Christmas goodies, but it does seem that it was after the Grimms’ “Hansel and Gretel” became popular. Gingerbread men or other gingerbread figures for gift-giving had been around since the Middle Ages, more or less, but shaping it into a house and glueing candy on it seems to have been inspired by this lovely story of child abandonment, attempted infanticide, and cannibalism.
I have to say that that fairy tale was never one of my favourites – I prefer stories without bad guys, and this one has not only one very bad witch, but a nasty stepmother to boot. I did like Gretel’s bad-ass vanquishing of the witch, and the ending where Hansel and Gretel get home to their father and live happily ever after.
What I didn’t notice as a kid, though, was that Daddy isn’t that much of a good guy either. In fact, he’s an utter wet noodle; all his moaning and guilty conscience doesn’t make up for the fact that he lets his wife talk him into abandoning his kids in the forest. It even occurs to him that it would be better for him to share his last piece of bread with them and then starve together with them, but does he act on it? Not Mr Wet Dishrag, no. Standing up to the wife would require a backbone, and that he hasn’t got. Macbeth, indeed, has nothing on Hansel Sr.
Another thing I never knew is that originally, the Grimms told the story with the nasty wife being not the children’s stepmother, but their real, biological mother (the stepmother entered the narrative around 1843, according to Hans-Jörg Uther*). Now doesn’t that put a nice spin on the story? Your mom is feeling a bit peckish, so in order as not to starve, she sends you out into the woods to die. Oh yeah, and Daddy ties a stick to a tree that makes a tapping noise so you think your parents are still around, chopping wood, while they sneak away and leave you to your doom. You’d think the witch would come as somewhat of a welcome relief after that kind of loving home life… So that’s your tragic backstory, before you even run into the cannibalistic witch with the overkill kiddie trap.
Oh yes, that trap? Grimms says specifically that the witch only built the bread house to lure children, not because it was her preferred construction material for superior country cottages. I’d call that overkill, wouldn’t you? Because, as I can tell you from experience, building a gingerbread house is a lot of work.
However, it’s also a lot of fun. Here is a relatively simple version (not cheap, because of the honey, but that does give it a great taste and texture). No windows made of spun-sugar “glass”, but hey, if you want, you can add those, too.
Incidentally, you might note there is no ginger in this “gingerbread” – there never is in German Lebkuchen. Just plenty of other spices, which were historically so expensive they were reserved for Christmas baking (and sometimes all lumped together under the term “pepper”, hence the alternative term “Pfefferkuchen” – pepper cake – for gingerbread. You might know it from “Pfeffernüsse“, the cookie).
(this makes one large house plus several tiny ones and a bunch of gingerbread people or bears. For just a house, half the recipe will do. Imperial measurements are approximate.)
-1 kg (2 lbs) Honey
-250 ml (1 c) Water
bring to a boil; cool.
-650 g (5 c) Rye Flour
-600 g (5 c) White Flour
-100 g (3 oz) each finely chopped Candied Lemon & Orange peel
-40 g (3 Tbsp) Lebkuchen-Spice (see below)***
-30 g (3 Tbsp) Baking Soda
Let rest for a few hours, up to a day or two.
For cookies or small gingerbread houses, roll out 1 cm (1/4″) thick, bake about 7-9 minutes at 400°F (200°C).
Dimensions for the large witch’s house:
Base plate, ca. 20×30 cm (8×12″), prick with fork, bake 12-18 minutes.
Roof (x2): 13×20 cm (5×8″).
House walls: (x2) 8×16 cm (3×6″); (x2) 16 cm (6″) wide with 16 cm (6″) high at the point of the gable.
Cut windows out of the side walls and a door out of one of the gable walls (can also be done immediately after baking). Bake ca. 12 min.
Make fence posts, window shutters, chimney pieces, small trees etc. out of the remaining bits of dough – maybe even a Hansel and Gretel and a witch?
-500 g (1 lb) Icing Sugar
-2 Tbsp Lemon Juice
-3 Egg Whites
Mix together to thick consistency (kind of like peanut butter). If it’s too runny, add more icing sugar; if too stiff, more lemon juice or water, a teaspoonful at a time. If you want to keep it vegan, skip the egg whites and just use lemon juice.
For the house construction, you might want to trim the edges with a knife so they are straight and hold together better. Support the roof plates (prop a cup under the bottom edge) until the icing has dried a bit and they no longer slide off. When things are holding together, go to town with covering everything in icing “snow” and candies. “Icicles” at the corners of the roof can be achieved by dribbling runny icing down the edge.
***Lebkuchen-Spice (Neunerlei – Nine Spice)
Lebkuchen spice can be bought ready-mixed, but if you can’t get it, here’s my own blend that I made up from the ingredients list on the package. All the spices are ground.
Zest of 1 orange & 1 lemon
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp coriander
1/4 tsp star anise
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp mace
1/4 tsp fennel
1/2 tsp cloves
1/4 tsp cardamom
To build into full-size cottage, multiply ingredients by approximately 500. Proceed as above, but build roof out of smaller tiles and use scaffolding for construction. In case of intrusion by marauding small children, keep phone number of child welfare services on hand to report the parents for abandonment.
*Hans-Jörg Uther, Handbuch zu den Kinder- und Hausmärchen der Brüder Grimm. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2013. p.13.
**recipe adapted from: Christian Teubner & Annette Wolter, Backvergnügen wie noch nie. München: Gräfe und Unzer, 1984.