Queen Elizabeth I (1533 – 1603) came up with the idea of having gingerbread cookies baked in the shape of people and decorated to honor noble visitors to her court. So the Gingerbread Man has been around a long time and quickly became a popular guy at Christmas time. So have Christmas cookies in general. Google “Christmas Cookie” and you’ll find page after page of information and recipes gathered from enough tomes to fill all the shelves in a small library.
HOLIDAY COOKIES HISTORY
The origins of the cookie were in ancient Winter Solstice celebrations in the Middle East. Lots of spices and the drying and pressing process acted as preservatives very much like hardtack was used in the Old West. Since the only spice used in hardtack was salt – when it was available – I assume the camel caravans carried a better tasting product. The word we use – “cookie” – derives from the Dutch koekje which means a “small cake” (England and other seafaring nations used “biscuit” from the French “biscuit” which meant “twice cooked.”) It seems that the German folks made cookies a Christmas staple when they started using them to decorate their tannenbaums – fir-trees – with cookies cut in various shapes before baking as ornaments.(There is a short fact-packed history at Stephanie Stiavetti’s A Culinary Life web site and an encyclopedic site at Christmas Carnivals).
WHEN A HOUSE GETS TAKEN HOME
As we saw in the early history of Winter Solstice and the Christmas traditions one of the benefits of the spices used to make the biscuits that were pressed and dried was the preservative factor. Ginger was the chief spice ingredient used. Medieval bakers began creating unique designs with the dough and in the 13th century the tradition spread from the Middle East into Europe. Gingerbread became such a staple that by the 17th century members of Baker’s Guild were the only people who could make gingerbread – except at Christmas and Easter when individuals were permitted to make their own. In the early 1800s German bakers started making gingerbread houses. Some historians say that the popularity of the Grimm’s Hansel and Gretel story inspired the bakers to begin making edible houses. German immigrants brought the tradition to America. Each year Sweet Basil conducts a Gingerbread House decorating party. Attendees of all ages arrive to find assembled Gingerbread Houses and decorator candies and colored icings ready to turn a gingerbread house into a Gingerbread Home – and then take it home. (When I’ve been on previous purchasing trips for these classes I felt as if I were Willie Wonka at a Candyland version of Home Depot.)
HOLIDAY COOKIES CLASSES
It is fair to ask why we are thinking about Christmas cookies when the holiday is almost four months away and summer heat hasn’t even thought of leaving town. (Even the Gingerbread Man couldn’t run away from Summer!) Our reason is the occasion of the release on September 1st of the Sweet Basil Fall 2015 Class Schedule which lists the Holiday Cookies classes. This year they begin on December 1st. Each year the sell-out date for these classes happens earlier and earlier. Our kitchen has already been inundated with the incredible smells of chocolate, ginger and butterscotch generated while recipe testing some new additions to the repertoire. Our Holiday Cookies classes are designed to be fun and efficient. All you need to bring are containers for the14-16 dozen cookies you’ll take home. We bake 14 different varieties of cookies during each class. You’ll find everything else waiting for you: a loaner apron, recipes, ingredients and an experienced Cookie Master to walk you through the recipes and be on call for assistance throughout the class. Since there are two people on each Cookie Team, many folks sign up with a friend.
WHATCHAMACALLITS (This is not about the Hershey’s candy bar.) One of the cookies on the Holiday Cookies Class menu is a long time favorite. At Sweet Basil we call it a “Mexican Wedding Cookie” which is appropriate in the southwest. I was first introduced to it as a teenager in Nebraska by new neighbors who were from Minnesota and of Swedish heritage. The wonderful tradition of the Christmas Cookie exchange yielded little round white cookies that melted in my mouth and were called Swedish Tea Cookies. Underbart! (“Wonderful!”) After I left Nebraska I ended up calling them Whatchamacallits because no one I met ever knew what a Swedish Tea Cookie was. Confusing the issue was the Archway seasonal cookies called Wedding Cakes. (They do not melt in my mouth! If you make these gems make Julia Child happy and use butter.) Well it turns out that these little powdered-sugar-covered-shortbread gems have more names than a lists of aliases from an FBI 10 Most Wanted List: Mexican Wedding Cakes, Russian Teacakes, Swedish Tea Cakes, Italian Butter Nuts, Southern Pecan Butterballs, Snowdrops, Viennese Sugar Balls, Sand Tarts, and Snowballs.
HOLIDAY COOKIE HARDWARE
Most fascinating for me, since I tend to get mesmerized by the sheer number of cookie cutters we carry at Sweet Basil during the holidays, is the traditions of Holiday cookie hardware. Cookie Cutters were popularized by the Pennsylvania Dutch in the 1800s with their making of cookie creatures called Yule Dollies and Yule Dows. These were figures shaped like people made using tin cutters. (My favorite cookie cutter is the coyote – don’t tell the road runner.) Some Holiday Cookie traditions are disappearing. The reasons are probably a mix of scattered family traditions, a lack of time, and the expense or lack of storage space for the proper tools. But a walk around Sweet Basil will reveal some old Christmas traditions that every once in a while someone wants to revive in their home. Note: Martie stocks a limited number of the holiday cookie hardware described below during the season. If you’d like to make sure she has one on hand for you please call Sweet Basil to place a special order.
KRUMKAKE – meaning bent or curved cake -, is a Norwegian waffle cookie made of flour, butter, eggs, sugar, and cream. The Krumkake Iron cooks the batter into thin round cakes which are then rolled into small cones around a wooden or plastic cone form. Krumkake can be eaten plain or filled with whipped cream or other fillings. Most of the time people who purchase a Krumkake Iron hail from the Midwest were many Norweigian immigants settled. (Pronounced 3 different ways on various “how to pronounce” web sites and youtube videos: 1. Krum “Kake” as in “Cake” 2. Krum Kah-kah 3. Krum Kah-Gah
Note: Krumkakes & Pizzelle Makers. You don’t need both unless you are particular about the design the irons make. Many recipes for Krumkakes and Pizzelles call for rolling the cookie while hot to make a cone. For that you’ll need a Krumkake Roller.
PIZZELLES – Pizzelles are similar to Krumkakes in that the result is a thin pancake. Depending on the recipe used it can he a firm or soft pancake. Its Italian heritage explains the anise or anisette flavoring most pizzelle makers use in the batter. (Pronounced: Starts out like “pizza” – Peet-Zell-Eh)
AEBLESKIVER – A Danish treat, the Aebleskiver (means “apple slices”) are described as a cross between a pancake and a popover because they have the shape of a ball. Apples are not used in most recipes anymore and the Aebleskiver is usually sprinkled with powdered sugar and dipped into jams. (Pronounced: E-bel-sky-ver)
COOKIE PRESS – a Cookie Press makes short work of pumping out cookie dough in lots of different shapes. 20 design discs and 4 icing nozzles are included. Just fill the cylinder with cookie dough and pump.
STILL TRYING TO RUN AWAY…
The Gingerbread Man we know and nosh on is a recent arrival on the holiday cookie scene. His story of jumping out of the farmer’s wife’s oven and running away first appeared in St. Nicholas Magazine in 1875. Before that it seems to have been a verbal story popular in New England. In Europe the tales told for centuries had been about runaway pancakes, dumplings and balls of dough. Young “listeners” love the cadence of the story and “readers” have a ball with it!
ALMOST THE END OF THE STORY
“Presently the gingerbread boy said, “Oh dear! I’m quarter gone!”