From the house in the beloved fairytale Hansel and Gretel to the antagonist in a bad Gary Busey movie, gingerbread has played lots of roles over the years, but none as prominent as during the holidays. That's when gingerbread villages pop up in store windows, living rooms and even the White House, and smiling gingerbread men with those cute little buttons move into bakeshops everywhere. Before you take your next bite, here are 10 things you may not have known about the festive baked good.
1. It's pretty much the perfect cookie for making houses
There's a reason you don't see villages of chocolate-chip cookie houses. "Gingerbread is an incredibly rigid cookie," says Nikki Wills, author of Gingerbread for Beginners and founder of the party and entertaining blog Tikkido. "It tastes great, especially if you dunk it in milk, but it's not a great snacking cookie like a nice soft sugar cookie so it really does lend itself to these creative construction projects."
2. Gingerbread houses came before gingerbread men…we think
Houses can be traced backed to 15th or 16th century Germany, and the stuff was shaped into decorative items like birds and flowers during gingerbread fairs throughout medieval Europe; but the popularity of the ubiquitous, blobby gingerbread man is thought to be more of an American creation. In the recipe for gingerbread in the 1796 cookbook American Cookery, author Amelia Simmons advises readers to shape the gingerbread "to your fancy." After that, bakers started getting creative and the wide-armed gingerbread man we know so well today was born. (Though some say that there were indeed some gingerbread figures floating around British festivals—but alas, since no one posted it to social media at the time, we'll never know for sure.)
3. There are two ingredients that make gingerbread gingerbread
Recipes vary, but two ingredients are always included, and you can probably guess what one of them is. "It's basically ginger and cinnamon: Those are the two major spices, and without ginger and cinnamon you don't have gingerbread," says Wills. "Whether it's the spongey cake or a traditional steamed pudding style or the rigid cookie we make houses out of, it's really just ginger and cinnamon."
4. You need the right equipment to tackle it
Since most of the batter is made up of dry ingredients, gingerbread is an incredibly dense, heavy dough, which means you've got to be prepared for a kitchen workout. "It is really tough to incorporate," says Wills, who makes around 100 houses during the holiday season. "It's good we live in the time of nice and sturdy stand mixers because a handmixer is not going to cut it … and I've burned out a fair number of motors even on my nice Kitchenaid mixers doing gingerbread."
5. Decorations can get really creative
For houses, the key is to stick with small candies that are easy to get to stick: things like M&Ms, Red Hots and gum drops, which Wills calls the "stock and trade" of gingerbread house makers. "But the sky's the limit and I remind people to think beyond candy," she says. "I love using pretzels, cereal. Cinnamon Toast Crunch makes really amazing shingles. Upside-down ice cream cones can be evergreen trees."
6. Gingerbread houses last multiple Christmases (if you've got the willpower)
If you're just using it as decoration, a gingerbread house can last years, according to Wills, which means you can simply put it away and pull it out again when it's time to decorate next year. But, in terms of eating, you've got a four-week window. "It gets a little more stale, but it's such a hard and rigid cookie, you can't really tell the difference," she says. It's a conundrum: Save the house for next year or devour it with a big glass of milk on December 26.
7. There's really only one choice for icing
Gingerbread bakers typically use a classic royal icing recipe of egg whites, powdered sugar and cream of tartar. "It's pretty much just a meringue with lots and lots of powdered sugar. For gingerbread houses you really let it beat for a good 10 minutes, and it gets stiff and sticky and holds the house together wonderfully," says Wills. "If you used something like buttercream icing, you'd have a sticky mess, but the magical thing about royal icing is in a few hours it hardens. It's basically delicious edible glue." The icing can also be used to adorn the house (think white snow on the roof or a frozen blue pond in the yard) and make decorations that last for … generations. "I still have some royal icing decorations that my grandmother made in the 1950s. And they're still completely edible."
8. You can actually have dinner inside a gingerbread house
The Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain in Tucson, Arizona, takes the hotel lobby gingerbread village a step further with this life-size gingerbread house that anyone can book for a private lunch or dinner during the holiday season. It ain't cheap: Lunch will run you $250, while dinner will cost you $300. But you'll get to say you had a lovely meal inside a structure made with 850 pounds of sugar. And no you're not allowed to start munching on the walls at any point.
9. The largest gingerbread house on record totaled 35 million calories
Since everything's bigger in Texas, it makes sense that the largest gingerbread house currently on record was built there too. As part of a charity fundraiser, the Texas A&M Traditions Club in Bryan, Texas, built the mini-mansion confection that measured 60 feet long by 42 feet wide by 10.1 feet high. Its 39,202 cubic feet broke the record previously held by a 36,000-cubic-foot house built at Mall of America. The creation was entirely edible and added up to 35,823,400 calories … which should make you feel much better about your holiday caloric indulgences this month.
10. Gingerbread has been a first lady tradition since Martha Washington
Mrs. Washington and, later, Dolley Madison both had fabled recipes for soft gingerbread cake, but it was Lou Hoover, who served as first lady from 1929 to 1933, who started using hard gingerbread as decoration for the White House Christmas tree, a tradition future first ladies continued. The first gingerbread house wasn't incorporated into White House decor, however, until the Nixon administration. Since then, gingerbread villages have grown into a White House Christmas tradition. This year FLOTUS Michelle Obama debuted the 150-pound gingerbread White House replica along with 56 "gingerbread" LEGO houses each representing a different state or territory (South Dakota's even has a mini Mt. Rushmore). No word yet on whether Melania Trump will continue the tradition...
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