Gingerbread is a confection that can appear in a cake-like or cookie form. The primary spice that flavors it is ginger, although it frequently incorporates cloves, cinnamon, and allspice as well. Gingerbread tends to be very rich and is sometimes served with brandy as an accompaniment. It is most commonly found around Christmas, although nothing restricts it from being consumed year round.
This treat probably originates in England, where there is a long tradition of rich, dense, spice cakes reaching back into the Middle Ages. The name originally may have referred to preserved or candied ginger, which was later used to make a confection with honey and spices that eventually transformed into the gingerbread of today. The medieval version was likely heavily sweetened and more like a candy or confection. It was probably cut into fanciful shapes and served on decorative platters along with other after-dinner sweets.
Ginger is native to China, although it is cultivated and used in cuisines all over the world. In the West, the spice tends to appear paired with sweet foods like cakes, beverages, and cookies. In the East, ginger is eaten with spicy foods and savory main dishes.
Some versions of gingerbread are more savory, perhaps as a nod to ginger's origins. The treat tempers the strong flavor of ginger with a sweet addition, often honey or molasses rather than refined sugar. The use of ginger in cooking in Europe began in the 11th century, when the rhizome was first brought back from the East.
Gingerbread cookies tend to be thin and crispy, with a strong characteristic gingery bite. Traditional cakes, on the other hand, are soft and chewy, and cooks often incorporate inclusions such as nuts, dried fruit, and preserved ginger. They is used to make gingerbread houses, a traditional Christmas pastime that can be quite elaborate.
To make a traditional cake, the cook should preheat the oven to 350°F (176°C), then sift together 2 cups (250 g) flour, 1/3 cup (66 g) sugar, 1 teaspoon (6 g) salt, 0.5 teaspoon (2.3 g) baking powder, 1 teaspoon (4.6 g) baking soda, 1 teaspoon (2.6 g) cinnamon, 1.5 teaspoon (2.7 g) ground ginger, and 0.5 teaspoon (1 g) cloves. He should then add 1 cup (236.5 ml) molasses, 1 egg, and 0.5 cup (118.3 ml) buttermilk. The doughy mixture should be stirred together until well combined, and then 0.25 cup (59 ml) hot water added. The cook should the pour the batter into a well greased and floured 8-inch (20.32-cm) pan and cook for 40 to 50 minutes or until the cake springs back when poked. The cake can then be set out on a rack to cool and dusted with confectioners sugar, or served with whipped cream, lemon sauce, brandy sauce, or another topping.