Gingerbread Galore!

By Sharon Hudgins
Photos by the author

‘Tis the season when a young elf’s fancy turns to thoughts of gingerbread. Although these sweet-spicy cakes and cookies are popular year-round in many countries of Europe, they’re particularly associated with the winter holidays. Bakeries from Sweden to Slovakia to Switzerland turn out tons of commercial gingerbread products, often packaged in brightly colored wrappings and tin boxes. And home bakers dig through kitchen drawers and recipe files to find favorite cookie cutters and family recipes for their own Christmas gingerbreads.

Although flatcakes made with honey and spices were baked by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, the gingerbreads of northern Europe probably date only from the Middle Ages, when honey was still the main type of sweetener available locally, and exotic, expensive spices such as cinnamon, black pepper and ginger were increasingly being imported from faraway lands in the East. A taste for gingerbread eventually spread throughout Europe, with certain cities becoming known for their own particular types: Strasbourg and Dijon in France, Torun in Poland, Tula in Russia, Aachen and Nürnberg in Germany, Basel and St. Gallen in Switzerland.

Marzipan-filled gingerbread
Traditional marzipan-filled Biberli gingerbread from the Appenzell region of Switzerland. The design on the top was imprinted in an old-fashioned mold before baking.

Gingerbread recipes evolved over time and in diverse places. Various kinds of gingerbread were, and still are, made with different combinations of honey, sugar, flour, eggs, almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, raisins, lemons, candied orange peel, candied citron, rosewater, rum, brandy, black pepper, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, allspice, cardamom, coriander, aniseed and saffron. Although these baked goods are often referred to as “gingerbread” in English, some of them don’t contain any ginger at all.

The variety of possible ingredients and textures causes some confusion about what “gingerbread” actually is. A cake, a cookie, or a loaf? Hard or soft? Thick or thin? Glazed or unglazed? Decorated with fancy frostings, or with fruits and nuts, or even with expensive gold leaf? At various times in its history, gingerbread has been all of these.

Lebkuchen outlet store and gingerbread display
Factory outlet store of Lebkuchen Schmidt, the largest producer of gingerbreads in Nurnberg, Germany

In the Middle Ages, the city of Nürnberg became one of the most famous places for making gingerbreads in Germany, where these seductive sweets have long been known as Lebkuchen (or sometimes Pfefferkuchen, when their spiciness comes from black pepper instead of ginger). Records show that Lebkuchen was being baked in Nürnberg as early as the 14th century. Traditionally, the stiff dough was pressed into highly detailed molds made of wood, metal, or terra cotta, which imprinted intricate designs on the Lebkuchen before it was removed from the molds and baked in a hot oven. Nürnberg Lebkuchen contained such costly ingredients, and was of such high quality, that it was accepted as payment for city taxes and given as gifts to nobles, princes, and heads of state.

Lebkuchen gingerbread
A selection of traditional gingerbreads from Lebkuchen Schmidt, Nürnberg, Germany.

Over time, as the prices of ingredients fell and the demand for Lebkuchen increased, faster production methods became necessary. The elaborate handmade molds were replaced by less detailed, often mass-produced, molds. Simpler decorations―such as nuts, candied fruit, and sugar frostings―were applied to the tops of many cookies. And the shapes were simplified, too, evolving into the basic human, animal, and geometric forms common today.

In the early 1800s, gingerbread houses became popular in Germany after the publication of the Grimm brothers’ fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel. And during the 19th century, ornately decorated Lebkuchen hearts also became the rage. Covered with fancy designs and romantic sayings made from colored icing, these large heart-shaped cookies were often exchanged between sweethearts. You can still buy them at almost every German festival and special market, including the Christmas markets held in many German cities throughout December.

Display at gingerbread store
Display at a LEbkuchen Pirker gingerbread store in Mariazell, Austria.

The Lebkuchen produced in Germany today comes in all sorts of sizes, shapes, flavors, colors and textures: rounds, rectangles, squares, hearts, stars, pretzel forms, St. Nicholas (for Christmas), lucky pigs (for New Year) and rabbits (for Easter). The Lebkuchen dough can be “white” (light colored) or different shades of brown. Some Lebkuchen are also covered with white or chocolate icing, and some are filled with marzipan or jam. Honey Lebkuchen is sweetened only (or primarily) with honey. Oblaten Lebkuchen are cookies with the dough mounded on top of a thin wafer before baking. And delicate, elegant Elisen Lebkuchen are made with at least 25% ground almonds, hazelnuts, or walnuts, and no more than 10% flour.

Gingerbread hearts
Gingerbread hearts at an open air market in Austria.

You’ll also find similar spicy cookies of different shapes, colors and textures called Printen (in Aachen, Germany), Pfefferkuchen (in Pulsnitz, Germany), Spekulatius (in the German Rhineland), Leckerli (in Basel, Switzerland), Biberli (in the Appenzell region of Switzerland), speculaas Holland, speculoos in Belgium, pepperkaker in Norway, pepparkakor in Sweden, piperkakut in Finland, pebernǿdder in Denmark, pain d’épices in France, licitar in Croatia, mézeskalács in Hungary, perníky in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, pierniki in Poland and prianiki in Russia. Other towns and regions have their own specific names for the many varieties of gingerbreads produced there.

Two types of gingerbread
Traditional gingerbreads from Austria.

Europeans also use gingerbread cookies as ingredients in other dishes. You’ll find crumbled gingerbread used as a stuffing for pork and for pasta, as a thickener for sauces, a flavoring for soups, a crunchy texture in salad dressings, and a base for many puddings and desserts. There’s even a German-Italian “fusion” dessert called ” Nürnberger Tiramisu”! And for people who just can’t get enough of that sweet, spicy, Christmasy taste of gingerbread, the Belgians have recently invented a gingery, caramely speculoos spread, similar in texture to Nutella, made from crushed gingerbread cookies.

If I’ve whetted your appetite for these European gingerbreads, my best suggestion is to travel there and taste them for yourself. You can also mail order many of them from the websites listed below. Costard, the clown in Shakespeare’s play, “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” had the right idea when he said, “An’ I had but one penny in the world, thou shouldst have it to buy gingerbread.”

Nürnberg Lebkuchen information

Lebkuchen-Schmidt, Nürnberg

Metzger Lebkuchen, Vienna

Lebkuchen-Pirker, Mariazell, Austria

Kerner Lebkuchen, Mariazell, Austria

Lebkuchen-Gandl, St. Wolfgang, Austria

Appenzeller Biberli, Switzerland

Basel Läckerli, Switzerland

French-Alsatian Pain d’Épices

Alte Pfefferkuechlerei (small gingerbread museum in Weissenberg,Germany)

Speculoos Spread

YouTube video about how to make decorated European gingerbread

American online sources for ordering European gingerbreads

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