Friday, December 23, 2016

Jane's Gingerbread Men

A cookie we've been enjoying eating for centuries!

Happy holidays, everyone! Unlike past Christmases, I didn't have a lot of time this year to do a ton of new holidays recipes, which on the one hand, isn't such a bad thing. Over the last three years, I've managed to feature a recipe from almost every character's time period and culinary perspective, so we've got a pretty good baseline for how Christmas, Hanukkah and Twelfth Night were celebrated over the decades.

But there's one character who I haven't featured yet, and I found the perfect thing to share with all of you this holiday season! It's from a pretty entertaining source too, which I'm very excited to bring to everyone's attention. Read on to find out more!

Gingerbread has been a staple of the Christmas season for a long time, but its history goes back way farther than that. Some of the earliest recipes can apparently be traced back to Ancient Greece! Ginger was common in China as well, but the cookies we roll out, cut into shapes and decorate with frosting and treats can trace their ancestry back to medieval Europe.

Gingerbread cookies were traditionally shaped into leaves or animals, but the first gingerbread men are attributed to Queen Elizabeth I, who had her cooks prepare gingerbread shaped and decorated to look like dignitaries visiting her court. Evidently this tradition caught on, but I'm actually not sure when it became solely associated with Christmas. Gingerbread used to be made in different shapes for all sorts of festivals and festivities throughout the year, and it's still a treat that's popular year round in many parts of the world, but in the United States, it's definitely become very heavily associated with Christmas.

In the Elizabethan period, gingerbread would have been a good recipe to make to prove you were a wealthy person, and the average citizen of Britain definitely wouldn't have been snacking on this every day. Spices and sugar were expensive ingredients that would often be used as a status symbol more than anything else because they were physical evidence that you could afford to own and then use them.

Jane's story takes place in 1614, so a little bit after Elizabeth's reign, but gingerbread still would have been a special treat rather than a daily afternoon snack back in England, and even more so in the New World. Colonists brought over some luxury goods like spices and sugar from Europe, but without a consistent source of new provisions, they needed to be careful to make these things last as long as they could. It's probably a bit of a stretch to say she would have gotten to eat gingerbread men during her first Christmas at Jamestown, but if you're looking to have a taste of what colonists might have been dreaming about snacking on, this isn't too far off the mark.

(As you may be able to imagine, finding any Jamestown appropriate recipes can be tricky!)

So I did make gingerbread cupcakes a few years ago, but I've never actually sat down and made cookie style gingerbread from scratch before. Gingerbread recipes can be extremely complicated, and have very different ingredients based on a lot of different factors: how crisp you want the cookies, how sturdy, what flavors you want to highlight or leave out, you get the idea. Some recipes are also very involved, and knowing that, I wanted to find something a little less complicated and user friendly to get my feet wet.

Thanks to Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, I found a recipe that gives interesting tips about authentic, Elizabethan gingerbread that's also simple and stress free. You can access it on the Globe Theatre's website along with a recipe for shortbread, which I'm interested to try! They have a bunch of other activities for younger visitors as well, so I'd definitely check it out if anyone has an interest in finding more activities and information about the Bard.

Because this is a British recipe, many of the measurements are based on weight, not volume. You start off with 12 ounces of flour, 1 teaspoon of baking soda, 2 teaspoons of cinnamon, 1/2 of a teaspoon of nutmeg and 3 teaspoons of ginger, or 4 if you're feeling particularly spicy, which I was, so I did. These are gingerbread cookies after all!

Next, you mix in 4 ounces of room temperature butter to the dry ingredients and blend them until you've got a nice sandy texture. You can do this by hand or with a food processor, but honestly I like doing this sort of thing by hand if I have the opportunity to. I also don't have a food processor in my apartment yet, so I guess I didn't really have a choice to begin with!

Once that's all well combined, 6 ounces of light brown sugar gets mixed in, and then come your wet ingredients: 4 tablespoons of golden syrup which have been blended with one egg.

The recipe does suggest two substitutions to making this recipe a little more authentic. In Elizabethan times, breadcrumbs were used rather than only flour, along with wine and fresh ginger. If you want, you can substitute some of the flour for breadcrumbs for a more authentic flavor. It also suggests swapping the golden syrup for honey, which I had to do because my grocery store doesn't sell golden syrup.

Everything is mixed together, which can take a bit of work. The dough is very dry, and while it's easy enough to handle in your hands, mixing it with a wooden spoon or spatula can take a lot of time. It felt very crumbly until I had warmed it up a little in my hands and melted the butter, and that's when it started really forming dough balls.

The dough needs to chill for 15 minutes before it can be rolled out. It was pretty easy to work with and felt less dry after taking it out of the fridge.

The cookies bake in the oven at 350 degrees for about 13 or 15 minutes. I needed to leave mine in a little longer because my oven in my apartment seems a little cooler than my oven at home. When I made this recipe again at my parent's house, I burned the cookies after leaving them in for 15 minutes, so I would definitely watch these carefully and get ready to pull them if necessary. They're ready when they're golden brown, and I tried to give mine enough width to be a little bit puffy rather than totally flat.

Some of my original batch came out looking a little weathered texture wise, but otherwise, they looked pretty great, if you ask me.

The recipe made a little more than a dozen cookies, and they all came out very uniform. This definitely isn't a dough you need to worry about expanding on you too much in the oven, which is always a bonus. I decided not to decorate mine because if this was a treat Jane got to eat in Jamestown, they probably wouldn't have wasted more sugar on frosting or intricate little decorations. Also, I am seriously lacking in sprinkles at the moment! Just another thing I'm going to have to add to my pantry at some point.

Texture wise they were pretty great too. Crunchy, but nice and soft in the middle. I don't always love super hard or super doughy cookies, so this was a prefect compromise.

And don't even get me started on the flavor! These are a really nice spicy cookie, especially with the extra teaspoon of ginger. They have an appealing heat that sticks around in you mouth afterward and aren't sickeningly sweet, even with the brown sugar and honey/golden syrup. The dough is pretty good too, but I honestly think it doesn't do the cookies justice uncooked. These were very tasty and I was a little bit sad I had to share them at a cookie swap with some of my friends because they were just that good.

Of course, I did share, and that's for the best because I shouldn't be eating two dozen cookies on my own! My taste testers all agreed that they were tasty, for which I am very glad. It's one thing cooking for your family often and another to be cooking for new friends. I want to make a good impression!

Hopefully everyone enjoyed this peek back into a very old holiday tradition. Maybe now that I know how to make basic gingerbread, I can try doing a gingerbread house from scratch one day! That doesn't sound like biting off more than I can chew, right?


Happy Holidays from A Peek into the Pantry!


  1. Cool post! Also, Merry Christmas! <3

    1. And happy New Year! Hope yours is off to a great start. :D

  2. Your cookies look yummy, and Jane is adorable in her period Outfit!


    1. Thank you! The outfit is available from Plimoth Plantation's gift shop if you're interested in picking up one of your own!

  3. This looks like a great gingerbread recipe (please try the shortbread too!).

    1. I would love to! This recipe was a really nice one to work with so I'd like to hope the shortbread one would be as well. If only there were more hours in the day!

  4. Merry belated Christmas and Happy New Year! Thank you for sharing these! I love gingerbread and will have to check out this recipe in the future.

    Have you ever featured Honey Cakes? Those were popular in the Goschenhoppen region of Pennsylvania. They are round and also not sickeningly sweet. One of my favorites I try to pick up at the Goschenhoppen Historians Christmas market.

    1. I haven't, actually! They sound yummy though, I'll definitely add that to the list of things to make. Thanks for the suggestion! :D

    2. I haven't found a good recipe for the honey cakes (cookies). I'll ask my family for it and come back with it for you.

    3. Awesome! Looking forward to it.

  5. Susanna sends greetings to Jane and believes those ginger biscuits look tasty. However, Susanna's family doesn't keep Christmas, being Calvinists. She will have to ask her mother for this treat on another day. Susanna's guardian tried medieval gingerbread made by historian Joyce White.
    It was very spicy and not tasty. Susanna and her guardian would prefer Jane's recipe.

    1. Oh, that sounds like fun to try though!