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The Secret Life of Gingerbread Men

Gingerbread Houses Image Gallery Don't leave gingerbread men off the table this holiday season. See pictures of gingerbread houses.

The man in the moon has nothing on the gingerbread man, that jolly brown fellow who, whether decorated or not, still manages to delight children of all ages. Whether he's taking up residence in a cookie tin or on the Christmas tree, gingerbread men are a European tradition and an American favorite.

Gingerbread Men: A History

You don't have to eat much gingerbread to realize that it isn't really bread at all. This sweet baked treat is actually named for its main ingredient, "preserved ginger," or gingebras, from Old French, and earlier, zingebar from Latin for "horn-shaped," describing the appearance of the ginger root.

The earliest incarnation of gingerbread may be up for debate, but we do know that Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) enjoyed this decorated sweet and often had gingerbread men fashioned as portraits for visiting dignitaries. She may have been the first to use this method for decorating gingerbread. These late 16th-century gingerbread men were probably made with treacle, or the New World upstart, molasses, and were elaborately decorated.

Decorated gingerbread was a stylish sweet that became popular at fairs and for holidays and feast days through the 17th century. Later, the 1812 publication of the German classic, "Grimm's Fairy Tales," which included the story of Hansel and Gretel and a house made of gingerbread, candy and cake, expanded the world of gingerbread decorating to include small replicas of houses. The tradition of making elaborate decorations for structures made of gingerbread still delights us today [source: Bensen].

In the United States, gingerbread men have been a favorite for more 200 years. We are partly indebted to classic children's tales like "The Gingerbread Boy," about the gingerbread man that ran away only to be eaten by a fox, first published by "St. Nicholas Magazine" in 1875, for making gingerbread men beloved symbols of childhood [source: Evans].

Gingerbread Men -- Tips and Tricks

To make professional-looking gingerbread men:

  • Dip cookie cutters in flour after each use to keep dough from sticking.
  • Turn the pan halfway through cooking to make sure gingerbread men cook evenly.
  • Use a silicone baking mat to keep gingerbread men from getting too brown on the bottom.
  • When you pull gingerbread men out of the oven, let them sit for five minutes before removing them from the pan.
  • If you don't have a pastry bag or decorative tip to add icing, just cut a small corner out of a plastic bag and use that instead. It will lay down a narrow, even bead of frosting.
  • Keep icing moist by covering the bowl with a damp towel between batches.
  • To ensure that your gingerbread men retain their strong, spicy aroma, always store them in a container by themselves.
  • To make decorative, hanging gingerbread men, just push a small, looped piece of twine or ribbon into the raw dough. That way, you can eat tasty gingerbread right off your Christmas tree.

For the holidays and all year long, gingerbread men are a nice way to make cookies with a distinctive flavor and an interesting history. At one time, bakers specialized in making these distinctive and beloved cookies, and you can make this traditional treat your specialty, too.