Who thinks of “gingerbread” in April?  In America, “gingerbread” doesn’t seem to enter our thinking until the holidays start approaching.  And even then, we tend to think of gingerbread only in the form of gingerbread men cookies and gingerbread houses.  In the U.K. and throughout Europe, however, gingerbread is available, purchased, baked and enjoyed year round.  This may be of no interest to anyone, but I find it fascinating.

Illustration depicting Christopher Columbus’s fleet departing from Spain in 1492.

We’re all familiar with ginger, even if its only in the dried, powdered form.  But did you know the ginger plant, from which we use the root, was discovered in the Indonesian islands, along with many similar plants, as early as 2000 B.C.  Knowing its medicinal benefits even then, ginger was already being cultivated by the indigenous people.  Along with turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon and cassia, ginger was among the first spices to be transported from the Far East over land and by sea to the Middle East and Europe.

From burning the spices in religious ceremonies, to creating ointments and potions to ward off the plague, as well as to hide putrid household smells and make unpalatable food edible, spices were in high demand.  We all know Christopher Columbus was trying to find a shorter route to the spice islands when he ‘bumped’ into this land mass.  The trade routes were so coveted, battles were fought over them and spice merchants became extremely wealthy and powerful.  Ginger was so expensive n the Middle Ages, one pound was the same price as one sheep.  But once the trade routes became established during the 15th and 16th centuries, prices stabilized … and by the 17th century, the Spanish were able to cultivate ginger and were growing it in the West Indies, making it affordable for all.

So, now that we know where ginger came from, let’s find out where “gingerbread” came from and why it’s so important in European cuisine . . .

I’ve read that the first known recipe for ‘gingerbrede’ came from Greece in 2400 BC.  Really?  How do they know that?  I do know, however, that food historians have traced ginger as a seasoning since antiquity.  From my research,  it seems an Archbishop from Armenia, in the 1st century, is credited with serving his guests a cake made of spices.  By the tenth century, its proven that Chinese recipes for ‘spice breads’ were developed using ginger, and by the 13th century European nuns in monasteries were known to be baking ‘gingerbredes’ to ease indigestion.  As spices, and in particular ginger, made their way throughout Northern and Western Europe, these breads baked in monasteries became so popular professional bakers began to make them.  The ingredients, of course, were a bit different from what we would expect.  Ground almonds, breadcrumbs, rosewater, sugar and ginger were mixed together and baked.  It wasn’t until the 16th century when eggs and flour were added.

Did you know Queen Elizabeth I is credited with creating the first “gingerbread man”?  Known for her outlandish royal dinners, Queen Elizabeth employed a ‘Royal gingerbread baker’.  Among her array of fancy desserts were not only birds, fruits, and castles shaped out of marzipan, but also of gingerbread. The first documented gingerbread-shaped biscuit actually came from the court of Queen Elizabeth when she commissioned figures to be made in the likeness of some of her important guests.  They were the hit of the court and soon these biscuits made their way into the bakeries.

Still not an inexpensive treat, gingerbread became widely popular at Medieval fairs all over Europe.  They were sold not only as delicious snacks, but as souvenirs and good luck charms.  Gingerbread became so popular, cities in France and England began holding “gingerbread fairs” and even formed Gingerbread Guilds, with strict baking guidelines and competitions.   Nuremberg, Germany was actually recognized as the “Gingerbread Capital of the World” and the quality of their gingerbread was so high that it was even used as currency for paying city taxes.  The oldest recorded gingerbread recipe, dating back to the 16th century, is on display in the Germanic National Museum in Nuremberg.

Elaborately decorated gingerbread became so synonymous with all things fancy and elegant that the Guilds began hiring master bakers to create works of art from gingerbread.  Bakers began carving wooden boards to create elaborately designed molds to shape individual images.  The shapes included not only flowers, birds, and animals, but even people.  They were in such demand, kings and queens, lords and ladies, knights and bishops wanted their images captured in “gingerbread”.  Should a young woman want to improve her chances of attracting a husband, she would have a “gingerbread man” made for her in the likeness of her gentleman’s image.  The hope was that if she could get him to eat the spicy delicacy, he would then fall in love with her.  Decorated gingerbread was given as a wedding gift, or to celebrate a birth or special occasion.

Gingerbread became such a specialized and highly prized item, only professional ‘gingerbread’ bakers were allowed to make it, unless, of course, it was a holiday such as Christmas or Easter, then anyone would be given permission.  The gingerbread house, as we all know and love, was created in Germany to replicate Hansel and Gretel’s foray into the woods.  Can we say Brothers Grimm?  This tradition of creating gingerbread houses at Christmastime is as strong today as it was 300 years ago.

In England, the small town of Market Drayton has been making gingerbread since the 1640s, and by 1793 had four gingerbread bakeries.  The town is so proud of its gingerbread heritage its displayed on their welcome sign.

In many European countries, gingerbread is still considered an art form, and the antique mold collections are on display in many museums.  According to the Guiness Book of World Records, the largest gingerbread man was made in Norway in November 2009 and weighed 1,435 lbs. And the largest gingerbread house was made in Texas, November 2013 by the Traditions Club – 60 ft. long, 42 ft. wide and 10 ft. tall – all to raise money for St. Joseph’s Hospital.

Whether you enjoy your gingerbread soft and chewy, as a crispy biscuit, or as a dense cake sweetened with molasses or honey, this tummy-warming treat is hard to resist.  Now that I’ve uncovered these little known facts about gingerbread, I think I better understand why its so popular in Europe . . . from Norway to Switzerland, Poland to Germany, Bulgaria to England,  gingerbread is available, loved, and eaten year round, and not just at Christmastime.


As Shakespeare said, “An I had but one penny in the world,
thou should’st have it to buy ginger-bread

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References:  Britannica, Unesco, Vegetable Facts, Wikipedia, Confectionary Chalet, BBC,

Victoria Sandwich vs Victoria Sponge

One of the things I LOVE to do while walking through the town centres anywhere in Great Britain is to go into bakeries.  Who wouldn’t?  The assortment of freshly baked and iced goodies turns me into a willpowerless, carb-craving child each and every time.  And every time, I come away with ‘one of those, please‘ and ‘yes, one of these‘ and could I have ‘two of those over there‘?

We don’t habakery windowve many bakeries in the U.S. anymore, not the in-town-centre, walk-past, window-displayed, shelf-laden purveyors of calorific goodness.  So, of course, I succumb to the temptation each and every time.  Wouldn’t you?

One of the staples sold in these bakeries, whether they are Mom and Pop shops, tearooms, or full chain restaurants, is the Victoria Sandwich aka Victoria Sponge.  This traditional sponge cake was the favorite of Queen Victoria and, as a result, was named after her (as were most things in Britain).   So what defines a cake as a Sandwich?  In the 19th century, a cake was a single layer, very dense (baking powder had just been invented and wasn’t widely used), with some sort of sweetener either on top or mixed into the batter.  This cake was very innovative because it had TWO layers which were “sandwiched” together with a thick layer of the Queen’s favorite Scottish raspberry jam.   Charles Francatelli, the Queen’s personal chef, was quite explicit in his recipe: ‘Victoria Sandwich’ with Scottish raspberry jam = 1:1:1:1 equal parts eggs – flour – butter – sugar.

nursery teaClarissa Dickson Wright, British food historian and co-star of the popular British food show, “Two Fat Ladies”, explained that the Victoria Sponge actually originated as a cake served to children for nursery tea.  She noted that tea cakes in early Victorian days would have consisted of a fruit cake or a seed cake, neither of which would have been served to children for safety reasons.  As a result, this light sponge cake was created for their teatime treat.  It actually wasn’t until this cake started to appear on adult tea tables that it became popular, and subsequently Queen Victoria’s favorite.

Although the original recipe is still used and respected, bakers have ‘enhanced’ the recipe just a bit to add more flavor.  Today, you’ll see the layers sandwiched with buttercream or sweetened whipped cream in addition to the jam.  A splash of vanilla extract or almond extract is often added to the batter.  In Queen Victoria’s time, fine caster sugar was sprinkled on the top layer for added sweetness.  You’ll often see confectioner’s sugar sifted over the top layer now.  Do I object to any of these ‘enhancements’?  Certainly not!  But for the sake of  keeping true to the original recipe, that’s the one I am using here.  Let’s give it a try ……

4 large eggs at room temperature (weigh on scale)
1-1/4 cups sugar (should be same weight as the eggs)
1-1/2 cups self-rising flour (1-1/2 cups cake flour + 2 tsp baking powder (which should also be the same weight as the eggs)
2 sticks softened butter (should be same weight as the eggs)
1 jar of good quality strawberry jam

four ingredients

The original recipe calls for all ingredients to be the same weight.  I assembled the four ingredients and weighed them for accuracy at 240 grams.  (Just slightly off on the butter, but I’m fine with that.)

Lightly grease 2 8″ or 9″ cake tins.  Bake time for 8″ is 30 minutes – 9″ for 25 minutes.  Line the bottom with lightly greased parchment paper.

Make sure the butter is soft and the eggs are at room temperature or you will not get a fluffy batter.  Using an electric mixer, beat together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, and very pale in color.


Slowly beat in the eggs, one at a time.  If the batter looks a bit curled, don’t worry, it will come together.  In a separate bowl sift the flour and baking powder (or use self-rising flour).  Slowly fold in the dry ingredients a little at a time. The batter should be a soft and light.



Divide the cake batter evenly between two cake tins.  Lightly smooth the surface and then pop them onto the middle shelf of a preheated oven.  Bake for 20 to 25 minutes (don’t peek beforehand) and then check for doneness.  The layers should be well risen and golden brown on the surface. If the cakes are browning too quickly, lower the temperature just slightly but do not be tempted to open the door.  If the cakes are not done, add 5 minutes.

Remove the cakes from the oven and let cool.  After 5 or 10 minutes the cakes should have shrunk away from the sides of the tins.  Remove the cakes from the tins and let cool completely.  Once cooled, place one layer top side down onto a plate.  Cover with a thick layer of strawberry jam and then place the second layer on top, creating your ‘sandwich’.  Sift superfine sugar over the top.  Serve with your favorite Earl Grey tea!!


My review:  very rich, satisfying and delicious.  A dollop of sweetened whipped cream and a few fresh berries would make this a perfect tea-time treat!

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References: The National Federation of Women’s Institute of Great Britain, Wikipedia.Org, BBC Foods.