By Catharine Kaufman
“An I had but one penny in the world, thou should’st have it to buy gingerbread.”
— William Shakespeare, ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’
Gingerbread is the quintessential treat for the holidays. A Christmas without this seasonal delight is like New Year’s without bubbly.
Whether your sugar-and-spice and candied-sweet vice comes in the form of the adorable Gingerbread Man, decorated cookies, crispy snaps, rich dark loaves or an enchanting gingerbread house, you’re in for a divine sensory experience. The blissful aroma will pull you into the heavenly blend of flavors that’ll hook you for good. (Although, I must confess I do feel somewhat uncomfortable, even cannibalistic, when chowing down on a leg or an arm of the Gingerbread Man!)
Gingerbread is an old soul, around since the days of Ancient Greece and Egypt where it was used for rituals and religious ceremonies. Food folklorists believe the 11th century crusaders imported the culinary novelty to Western Europe via the Mediterranean. A popular treat in medieval Europe for festivals and fairs, the gingerbread had romantic and superstitious connotations as Ladies gave their Knights in shining armor a piece for good luck in battle (and secretly ate a “Gingerbread Husband” for wishful matrimonial thinking).
Germany was also a big fan of gingerbread cookies aka Lebkuchen, a staple at street festivals, while the gingerbread houses were all the rage following the publishing of the Brothers Grimm tale of “Hansel and Gretel” who stumbled upon the witch’s candy cottage.
As for the creation of the Gingerbread Man, Queen Elizabeth lays as solid a claim as any, presenting to visiting dignitaries baked gingerbread replicas of themselves.
On the local homefront
Americans have been enjoying the spicy delight for two centuries, while George Washington’s mom was known for baking batches shaped like diminutive kings and eagles.
In these parts, Old World Flemish baker Francois Goedhuys of Girard’s Gourmet in La Jolla whips up from scratch non-discriminatory Gingerbread Men and their female counterparts with wheat flour, molasses, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and ginger, of course, all beautifully decorated with glossy icing. The master baker customizes the decorations, and will even write personalized names on the gingerbread people to use as creative (and tasty) place-card settings for holiday tables.
Village Mill Bread Company in Carmel Valley bakes both large gingerbread figures (6-inches long), along with little people, tree ornaments, snowmen, stockings, bells, dreidels and menorahs (for Chanukah) in both gingerbread and sugar cookie doughs. They also sell undecorated versions along with colored frostings and pastry bags to jazz up at home.
Cupcake Love in Solana Beach offers Gingerbread Man cupcakes topped with vanilla bean whipped cream and miniature gingerbread cookies as flavor of the month for December.
Starbucks does a riff on the treat with a gingerbread loaf spice cake smothered in sweet cream cheese icing and candied orange peel. You can then wash it all down with gingerbread latte — a blend of espresso, steamed milk and gingerbread syrup topped with whipped cream and ground nutmeg.
As for gingerbread houses, The Epilepsy Foundation of San Diego is the creative architect behind the 19th annual Gingerbread City Gala and Structure Competition, with the theme “Myths and Legends,” hosted by the Grand Del Mar Nov. 29. It’s a charity extravaganza unparalleled in magnitude on the West Coast. There are two categories — grand and petite — with strict rules and high stakes, including $2,500 first prize in the grand category.