Gingerbread is a cake or cookie flavored with ginger, sugar, cinnamon and cloves. The most popular forms of gingerbread are the gingerbread man and the gingerbread house. However, breads, cupcakes and loaf cakes are also quite common.
The ginger root is native to Asia, but history points to the Eastern Mediterranean as the origin of gingerbread. It's said that Europeans discovered the spice there while on voyages during the crusades in the 11th century and Catholic monks started adding it to cakes to preserve them. In the next 200 years, gingerbread spread throughout Europe with bread crumbs added to the standard recipe. It became a holiday staple in France and England, as well as very popular in Germany, where gingerbread hearts still have a prominent role in the annual Oktoberfest celebration.
At first gingerbread was mostly used by the wealthy. Ladies made heart-shaped gingerbread to give to knights and merchants presented gingerbread in the shapes of animals and biblical characters to nobility. Most cast the shapes by pouring the batter into specially designed wooden molds. The custom of decorating the gingerbread with elaborate icing also originated here. Sometimes the bread was even adorned with gold. Gingerbread houses became popular around the time of the fairytale Hansel and Gretel, in the late 1700s. This is when Germans began making hexenhausen, or witch's houses, similar to the ones in the story.
Gingerbread evolved over the centuries, with flour replacing the breadcrumbs and molasses replacing raw sugar. Many also add butter and eggs to make their gingerbread more light and fluffy, especially if they're making cakes.
Today, gingerbread has a prominent place not only among European but also American holiday traditions. Gingerbread house design and decorating contests take place in all 50 states each December. North Carolina even holds a National Gingerbread Championship competition each December, which airs on the Food Network.
When building a gingerbread house or decorating gingerbread cookies, it's recommended to use a pastry bag. Sloppy application can cause the house to fall apart, collapsing in on itself and it can make for uneven decoration. Most gingerbread house competitions require that every bit of the home be edible. Since it's hard to make windows or trees out of gingerbread, builders use other sweet treats, such as marshmallows or gumdrops or even sugar glass.
Gingerbread tends to get hard and stale pretty quickly if left exposed to the air. To preserve gingerbread, wrap it in wax paper. Then seal it in an airtight container. It should keep for at least three weeks. Freezing is not recommended.