A Very Gingerbread Christmas
Gingerbread is synonymous with Christmas. From houses and lattes to lebkuchen and gingerbread Santas there is likely to be some sort of gingery treat found in most British households at this time of the year.
There is nothing quite like the spicy aroma of gingerbread baking. For me it is the kitchen scent that is most likely to evoke the ‘Aah Bisto’ reaction and one which has been a constant companion during my life. Whether it is in cake or biscuit form I have the highest regard for all ginger flavoured confections.
Deliciousness aside, gingerbread also lays claim to my affections because it has a long and fascinating history. I explore its heritage in my book First Catch Your Gingerbread which has won a Gourmand Award in the Food Blogger category for the UK.
An Auspicious History…
The precise origins of gingerbread are vague but there are recipes for gingerbreads dating back to some of our earliest medieval cookery manuscripts. In Britain it began its life as a highly spiced concoction of breadcrumbs and honey. These luxurious ingredients (spices were incredibly valuable during this period) meant that gingerbread was largely eaten by the wealthy. Gradually, honey and bread would be usurped by treacle, sugar and flour. As the British empire grew so these ingredients and the spices, so characteristic of gingerbreads, became more affordable. Gingerbread became accessible to much of the population (Queen Victoria even gave her spaniel Dash some gingerbread as a Christmas present). It was a particularly popular souvenir at fairs (from where we get the name ‘fairing’) where gingerbread would be moulded into popular figures of the day (e.g. the king or queen) then decorated with gold leaf (or an artificial substitute).
The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was fond of gingerbread and sent a letter to his Aunt Kate in 1803 stating: ‘Tell the bearer not to forget to bring me a fairing, which is some gingerbread, sweetmeat, hunting-nuts and a pocket book.’
Hunting nuts or ginger nuts of this period were typically small, round biscuits. The name appears to come from rolling the gingerbread dough into walnut size pieces prior to baking. Gingerbread nuts were a popular street food during the 19th century. Vendors in towns and cities could be heard crying “Hot spiced gingerbread nuts, nuts, nuts! If one’ll warm you, wha-at’ll a pound do?—Wha-a-a-at’ll a pound do?” In their original incarnation the ‘nuts’ may have been baked quite hard making them durable and an ideal snack when travelling (ginger is prized by many cultures for its calming affect on the stomach).
Gingerbread or Hunting Nuts are usually left as naked as the day they were made. However, their slightly domed shape reminds me of a Christmas pudding (albeit a very shallow one) so here I have given them a festive topping then dipped the bases in melted chocolate.
Festive Hunting Nuts
This 19th century recipe is based on one found in a hand written notebook by a Mrs Mary Dixon.
Ingredients (Makes 12-14 small biscuits)
1½ tsp ground ginger
½ tsp caraway seeds
Pinch ground cloves
½ tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp bicarbonate of soda
100g/4oz icing sugar
½ tsp gum tragacanth (this helps the icing set and remain glossy but is optional)
2-3 tbsp water or lemon juice
75g dark chocolate, broken into pieces (optional)
Put the sugar, treacle and butter in a saucepan along with the spices. Heat the mixture until the butter has melted and the treacle is liquid but do not boil. Allow to cool until it is lukewarm.
Mix the flour and bicarbonate of soda thoroughly into the mixture. Cover the bowl and place in the fridge for at least 1 hour (longer is fine).
Preheat the oven to 180℃. Line a good sized baking sheet with non stick baking paper or a non stick silicone liner.
Roll the dough into walnut size balls. Place on the baking tray and cook for 10 minutes. They will have spread a little but should be little cracked domes. Cool on the baking tray for a few minutes before moving to a wire rack.
While the nuts are cooking sieve the icing sugar and gum tragacanth (if using) into a bowl. Stir in 2 tbsp water or lemon juice to make a fairly runny icing (add more water if required to make the right consistency). In most cases this icing can be brush over the top of each biscuit as soon as they come out of the oven. Give the biscuits a second coating if you want a thicker finish to the icing. Sprinkle over the decoration of your choice then leave the icing to set (this won’t take long).
Put the chocolate pieces in a heat proof bowl. Place over a pan of barely simmering water or briefly in the microwave to melt the chocolate. Once the icing has set and the biscuits are cool dip the bases into the melted chocolate. Place the biscuits upside down on a baking tray to allow the chocolate to firm up.
If you are not a fan of icing, these biscuits are also delicious rolled in 40g Demerara sugar prior to baking. This provides a wonderfully crunchy exterior.