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Gingerbread Cookies are a Holiday Tradition


Gingerbread first appeared in Western Europe at the end of the eleventh century.  Crusaders returning from the Eastern Mediterranean brought home unknown foods, such as spices, sugars, almonds and citrus fruits that would become the essential ingredients for gingerbread.

From its very beginning, gingerbread was a fairground delicacy. Fairs in England became known as gingerbread fairs and gingerbread items took on the name of fairings which meant a gift given at, or brought from, a fair. The Gingerbread Woman would sell molded cookies of men, women, the sun, the moon, flowers, birds or animals that were decorated with gaudy colors and gilt.

There were other European gingerbread variations. The French made spice bread, with ginger, allspice, cloves, aniseed, and honey. Italian Panforte, a dense rich gingerbread, was almost candy-like, and enriched with nuts and dried fruits.

Nowhere in the world is there a greater variety of gingerbread recipes than here in America. Settlers from all parts of Europe brought with them family recipes and customs.  American recipes often use ingredients that are only available regionally. Maple syrup gingerbreads are made in New England, and in the South sorghum molasses is used.

Gingerbread has been baked for centuries. In some places, it is a soft, delicately spiced cake while in other places gingerbread is a crisp, flat cookie or a warm, thick steamy-dark square of bread served with a pitcher of lemon sauce or whipped cream. It might be light, or dark, or sweet, or spicy. It might be cut into shapes and colorfully decorated or stamped with a mold and dusted with white sugar.

Once baked, let gingerbread cool completely before decorating. A simple glaze of confectioners’ sugar and milk works well. For added flavor add fruit zests or extracts.

Decorations such as shredded coconut, colored sugar, toasted sliced almonds, button candies, mini chocolate chips, and dried fruits should be added before the icing dries. Cookies can be prepared up to two weeks ahead and stored in single layers between sheets of waxed paper in airtight containers.

For a copy of a Gingerbread Cookie recipe that is over 45 years old and has been passed down from generation to generation, come by the Extension Service at 211 DeQueen Street, Mena, or call 479-394-6018.

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