“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.
So, you know how back in September, I said that I was hoping to get Checkmate published by at least Christmas? Uh, yeah. Not gonna happen. I’m sorry…
I don’t actually know what happened there. Where did October go? I mean, I must have done something during that month – other than cook Thanksgiving turkey, and wrap up the last bit of garden, and throw a book birthday party for Seventh Son, and stuff like that. It feels like I’ve been busy non-stop…
And then, of course, after that, NaNoWriMo hit with a vengeance, and I got off on a completely different track. Instead of hanging out with Cat and Guy and Bibby in Ruph, I was off in an as-of-yet-unnamed world, spending time with Lyulf and Kalyana (at least that’s what she’s called right now – that might change, still) and Little Nameless (he won’t talk, so they can’t find out his name) and Old Nameless (who also refuses to give his name), all in pursuit of the mysterious silver bracelet that glows, sometimes. Which was all great fun, but didn’t really help Checkmate along any.
So, I think I’m now at the point where I can slowly start breathing again, which does bode well for the progress of Checkmate and other writing projects. However, first I have to excavate my household from its NaNo-induced state of dire neglect, and play catch-up on the Christmas-preparations front. Not one cookie has been baked yet this season, barely any presents purchased (never mind hand-made), and as for Christmas cards – what Christmas cards? Ah well, I have two more weeks to do all that. TWO MORE WEEKS? Yikes, that’s not much time at all!
So you’ll excuse me if I sign off now.
Life, the Universe, and, umm, I dunno – where’s my to-do list? [rushes off frantically to check the state of the baking supplies in the cupboard…]
Except, I lie. Not one speck of ginger, fresh or dried, has come near these goodies. They are, in fact, genuine, honest-to-goodness German Lebkuchen. Yes, I know, I know, over here we call them gingerbread. So be it – as long as you keep in mind that ginger plays no part in it.
It’s a new recipe I tried from a cookbook I’ve had for a long time, and I’m very pleased with it. It tastes exactly like Lebkuchen should. Except for the texture – boughten Lebkuchen, the ones from Nuremberg (which is famous for them), are soft and kind of chewy, more of a cake texture; these things that I baked today went rock-hard once they cooled off, kind of like biscotti. I guess they’re dunkers. Put on a pot of Glühwein (mulled wine), or if you don’t want the booze, some spiced soft cider, and you’re in business. Aaah.
It’s the quintessential Christmas goodie, loaded with ingredients that for Germans are exotic imports, because they can’t be grown in north-central Europe. Almonds, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg – things that come from the south.
And now they’re going into the cookie tin, the big one with the rounded lid, which years ago came in a Christmas parcel, filled with the real chocolate-glazed Nürnberger Lebkuchen. Of course, it’s the tin for keeping those gingerbread cookies in – just look at the picture on the lid! It shows exactly that kind of cookie, almonds and all. Baked by friendly little dwarfs, no less, who get the nuts from a squirrel family, take them home to their dwarfs’ cottage, bake them into gingerbread, and then take some back to the squirrels to share.
And just so you can share, too (maybe not with squirrels, but I’m sure you’ve got some friends who might be into it) here’s the recipe:
1 tsp baking powder
400g ground whole almonds
100g mixed candied peel
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp each cloves, nutmeg and allspice
1 egg yolk
80 blanched almonds
Beat the eggs with the sugar until foamy. Sift together flour and baking powder, mix with almonds and spices. Stir into the eggs and sugar, knead together into a firm dough. Wrap dough in tin foil or parchment paper; put in the fridge (or on your sub-zero-temperature deck) for two hours to rest.
Preheat oven to 180°C (350°F). Roll dough on floured surface to 1cm thickness. Cut into 40 even-sized squares; put on a cookie sheet. Beat the egg yolk with a little bit of water. Brush squares with egg wash, decorate with one almond half in each corner (I used sliced almonds instead). Bake on the centre rack of the oven for 20 minutes or until light brown. Cool on racks. Store in Lebkuchen tin with pictures of friendly dwarfs on the outside. Defend from marauding family members so a few cookies are left until Christmas.
And as a bonus, here’s how I make Glühwein and/or mulled cider:
1 bottle of red wine, or 1 litre of apple juice
1 cinnamon stick
about half a dozen whole cloves
if using wine, about 1/4 c sugar (or more, to taste)
Put all ingredients together in a slow cooker or a pot on low heat. Simmer anywhere from 1hr to all afternoon. Serve in mugs. Perfect while shopping at the Christmas market with snow drifting down on you, or perhaps while going carolling. Or just for sitting by the fireside and dunking gingerbread into.
There you are. Life, the Universe, Gingerbread and Mulled Wine. Wassail!