Gingerbread houses are a deep-rooted part of our holiday tradition. They make an appearance everywhere in December, from your household all the way to The White House. And we have the Germans to thanks for it, but more specifically the Brothers Grimm.
Yes, the story of a cannibalistic witch gave us our beloved gingerbread houses.
In 1812, the Grimm’s fairy tale Hansel and Gretel was published, and with it the wonderful idea of creating a house out of cake and candy took off. We’re not saying that gingerbread houses weren’t constructed before this story ― some say they were built in Germany as early as the 16th century ― we’re saying that the publishing of this tale popularized the idea, and helped bring it over to the U.S.
And it has found a happy tradition in the states ever since.
But before that, gingerbread got its start with the Crusades in the 11th century.
Gingerbread houses did not just appear out of nowhere in Germany. The idea of gingerbread was brought to western Europe from the eastern Mediterranean during the Crusades in the 11th century. While gingerbread’s exact origins are murky, it is known that ginger originates in Asia. And while it was introduced all across Europe, it was the Germans who really adopted it into their baking tradition.
The Germans took gingerbread baking very seriously.
The Germans turned gingerbread baking into an art with their lebkuchen cookies. The cookie is native to Nuremberg, where the bakers guard their recipe like a family treasure. The cookies were baked by local monks in the 14th century, and thanks to great local ingredients their reputation grew. The city recognized them by making an official League of Lebkuchen-Bakers in 1643, and has developed strict guidelines that ensure these cookies are still a sought after delicacy today.
The original gingerbread doesn’t resemble what we know and love today.
Originally, gingerbread was made with honey, ginger and breadcrumbs. Today, a basic gingerbread recipe includes molasses, a variety of spices (such as cloves, nutmeg or cinnamon ― and ginger, of course), flour and butter. But you can find almost as many variations to this recipe as you can find houses made out of the gingerbread itself.