Sunday, December 25, 2016

Spice Girl: The Gingerbread Manifesto

When I first heard this song by Antonio Carlos Jobim, I assumed that it was called, "Gingy," after the character in "Shrek." After all, why wouldn't anyone write an ode to a hysterical cookie man with a high-pitched voice?

Gingerbread men from Whole Foods: Crunchy
mini-mes by Nikki's Cookies with a long and tall
from Jacqueline's Cookies.
Gingerbread in representational shapes dates back to Queen Elizabeth I, who ordered biscuits made in the likeness of visiting dignitaries to her court. While gingerbread people, houses, and other shapes have become synonymous with the Christmas season, the cookie was sold at fairs in colonial America and baked into "funeral biscuits" and served at wakes in the 17th and 18th Century New England and Pennsylvania Dutch country. Caraway or tansy seeds enhanced the now familiar flavor of "hard gingerbread," which is still sweetened with molasses.

The New York Times recently ran an article on pierniki, a specialty of Torun, Poland, that dates back to 1380. The name comes from the Polish word pieprz, or pierny, meaning a peppery flavor. Modern gingerbread recipes consistently include a mixture of cinnamon, clove, ginger, and nutmeg - black pepper is not as frequently included although it is part of the authentic pierniki formula.

Boiled honey and candied orange zest give leckerli their
sunny flavor base despite their wintry appeal.
Gingerbread's Swiss cousin, leckerli, is made similarly to pierniki, with a boiled syrup of honey and spirits, as well as almonds, hazelnuts, and candied orange peel. Dorie Greenspan's recipe, reprinted on Food 52, was surprisingly easy - despite the cement-like consistency of a sticky dough - and yielded a huge supply of chewy and fragrant cookie bars.

And to satisfy my urge to roll and cut dough in festive shaped, I found a recipe on the blog, Pecan Pies & Tomato Tarts for honey spice cut-outs. The recipe allows for either molasses or honey to be used to sweeten the rich dough. I opted for molasses, which yielded a chewy cookie that was easy to roll and shape, with a great aroma that improves with age.

Unicorns are my new deer: Honey spice cut-outs await
the oven.
The term, "gingerbread" also refers to fanciful and ornate architecture in the late 19th Century, in the United States and in Haiti. Building houses and other structures of gingerbread has become an art unto itself. I didn't attempt it this year, but have acquired a Nordic Ware pan that bakes muffins or cakes in the shape of tiny houses. I'm looking forward to using it to try out this toothsome recipe for Gramercy Tavern's gingerbread, courtesy of Smitten Kitchen.

Finally, when the need for a gingerbread fix arises,
Gingerbread man from Peet's
Coffee and Tea adds nostalgia
to the coffee break.
there are many store-bought versions that are very good. Peet's Coffee and Tea serves a gingerbread man that is soft and chewy, with strong notes of clove. Nikki's Cookies, which are sold at Whole Foods, has cute and crispy mini-gingys, accented with black pepper. And Baked in the Sun created a gingerbread man that found its way into my Nordstrom shopping bag, decked out in red icing buttons and a friendly smile. This one was dense and chewy, and reminded me of the first time I ever baked gingerbread.

There must be a reason that the melange of spices used to flavor gingerbread and other holiday resurface every year for the winter palate. Cinnamon is said to have cognitive and psychological benefits - I actually
give my morning Americano a good sprinkle of it every day. Although a very subtle spice, nutmeg is helpful to circulation and reducing insomnia. Among many other qualities, ginger is the only source of gingerol, a known anti-inflammatory aid and antioxidant. And cloves aid digestion, control blood sugar levels (how it does this in a cookie, I don't know), and boosts immunity.

Obviously, there is some physiological draw to foods that warm up us or cool us down, depending on the weather. But during the holidays or any other festive occasion, there is a psychological attraction to the creature comforts that take us back to a simpler time. All the rushing about at the holidays is worth it when you can revisit childhood and recall happy times by just baking - or eating - a cookie.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and a wondrous New Year to you! Thank you for reading GMS!

Other Sources:

Weaver, William Woys. "America Eats: Forms of Edible Folk Art" (New York: Harper & Row, 1989. Print)