Updated: Oct 29, 2019
Gingerbread is often used to translate the French term ‘pain d'épices’ (literally "spice bread") or the German terms ‘Pfefferkuchen’ and ‘Lebkuchen’ ("pepper cake”) or Polish ‘Piernik’ (“pepper cake”).
Origins of this classic Christmas dough are quite unclear and some believe that this honey filled recipe dates back to ancient Egypt. It was mentioned in medieval German and Polish literature. It became popularised by Brothers Grimm after publishing ‘Hansel and Gretel’ in the 19th century after which gingerbread houses became very popular in Germany. Queen Elizabeth is believed to be responsible for the first gingerbread man as she had them made to resemble visiting dignitaries and then presented them to the dignitaries as a gift.
Few countries went as far as setting up museums for this delicious fragrant dough. You can learn how to make it in Torun (centre of gingerbread in Poland) or Nuremberg (Germany).
Cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, ginger, black pepper, honey - all those fragrant ingredients are complimenting jolly Christmas atmosphere. The recipe below draws from old German and Slavic gingerbread recipes. The dough is full of spices and thanks to honey and brown sugar it is oozing with caramelised flavour. Addition of rye flour gives the baked cookies lovely texture. As a result of fairly long maturation (anything between 6-8 weeks) the dough is airy and spices are well blended into the mixture. Baked gingerbread cookies, when kept in airtight container, keep fresh for at least 4 weeks (unofficially - we ate this gingerbread few months after being baked and it was still delicious and kept very well)!.
The dough is quick to make (20 min max). The only thing needed, is to remember to make it in advance. It’s actually an added bonus given busy Christmas schedule! You can use the dough from this recipe to prepare gingerbread cookies and layered cakes. You will need some flour for dusting when baking - this will all depend on the type of flour and honey used but it's fairly easy to judge when rolling out the dough. Cakes and cookies need to be baked 4-7 days before Christmas (good gingerbread needs few days of rest after baking). Spices are definitely a carrier of flavour here but don't forget about the honey. The choice of honey will influence the taste of your cookies and cakes. If it is your first time preparing this dough we would recommend to go with organic linden or acacia honey (lighter flavour) or rapeseed honey (deeper flavour).
Old-Fashioned Maturing Gingerbread Dough Recipe
Yield: 1 dough which will yield 1 cake (3-4 layers) + 80 cookies
Active time: 20 minutes + 6-8 weeks maturation (no need for any action during that time)
Tin: Large pot with a lid
- 250g unsalted butter
- 200g granulated white sugar
- 100g light brown sugar
- 500g good, organic honey
- 920g all-purpose flour
- 80g rye flour
- 1 tsp salt
- 80g gingerbread spices**
- 3 teaspoons baking soda
- 3 large eggs
- 125ml full-fat milk
** or prepare the mix yourself: 2 Tbsps cinnamon, 2 Tbsps allspice, 2 Tbsps ginger, 1 Tbsp nutmeg, 1 Tbsp cloves and 1 tsp ground black pepper - it will be less than 80g but mixed fresh spices will be more fragrant
1. Melt the butter in a medium-sized pot. Add white sugar, brown sugar and honey. Stir until combined and bring the mixture to boil. Cook for another 1 minute stirring occasionally. Set aside to cool. The mixture needs to be lukewarm before adding to dry ingredients.
2. In a large bowl (main dish for mixing so has to be large) mix all purpose flour and rye flour with baking soda, salt and gingerbread spices (would recommend sifting for even baking soda distribution). Pour lukewarm honey mixture. Add eggs and milk. Mix all ingredients with spatula/wooden spoon/hand until combined. The gingerbread dough will be sticky and fairly loose - and that’s OK. It will set further in maturation process. Pour the dough into glass container (I used Pyrex). Cover tightly with the lid. Move the dough to dry and cool place (below 10C - refrigerate if you are concerned there may be temperature swings) and let it rest for anything between 6-8 weeks. Proceed with baking few days before Christmas.
3. When ready to bake:
- For 3 or 4-layer gingerbread cake - split dough into 3 or 4 equal parts. Dust work surface with 1 Tablespoon flour and knead each piece for few seconds (as little as possible). Dust your rolling pin and roll out each piece 0.5cm thin. Line your baking tin with parchment paper and bake for 15-20 minutes at 170C (155C fan forced oven). The dough should be baked through but not too dry - check with skewer if fully baked (start checking after 15min). This dough has a lot of honey so it may quickly bake too dry if not watched closely - control temperature and baking time. You can find sample cake in this recipe.
- For cookies - proceed as above with kneading (keep to minimum). Roll out 0.2cm-0.3cm thin (you can roll in-between two layers of parchment paper). Bake at 170C for 10-12 minutes. Leave some 2-3cm space in-between cookies when placing on baking tray (cookies will puff up when baking). You can find sample cookies in this recipe.
Jazz it up:
1. Honey - use different types of honey to manipulate the flavour (different blends and ratios).
2. Flour - increase rye flour content or introduce spelt and/or rice flour or einkorn (keep all purpose flour at 80%).
3. Spices - mix in cardamom, star anise.