Run, run as fast as you can!
You can’t catch me. I’m the
As I looked at these vintage tin cookie cutters I remembered the rhyme from my childhood and wondered why only Gingerbread men and not gingerbread women, boys or girls featured in literature? At least we weren’t being eaten I thought as I looked at the three figures perched on the wall above my kitchen bench. There are two types of gingerbread men eaters: the head biters and the leg nibblers. Which are you?
Because of their age I wouldn’t use these gorgeous vintage cutters, but they inspired me to make a batch of gingerbread and later sitting eating a small square of fresh warm cake I pondered on cookie cutters and sweet dough molds.
I found these wonderful old molds of a woman, boy and girl lying unwanted on a market table in Beaune where I had gone to stay at a friend’s house. I walked past, pausing to look over the objects on the market seller’s table and these small figures seemed to leap up, asking to be held and caressed. It was if they wanted to tell me about all the wonderful cookies and breads they had made. I ran my finger along their shapes, trying to imagine the kitchens they had been used in. I imagined small children standing by a wooden table as their mother rolled out the cookie or gingerbread dough. Jostling with each other in their enthusiasm to cut out the shapes then impatient to decorate the cookies once cooked, soft icing dribbling from the still warm biscuit. Small hands holding the gingerbread with crumbs and icing falling on the flagstones. I wondered whether these hand made cutters had lived in a kitchen in Alsace and were they French or German. Now they were about to live in an Australian kitchen.
I thought of my children when they were little and how we used the free time during school holidays to cook cakes and biscuits. They loved cutting shapes out of firm dough to make gingerbread biscuits placing them carefully on trays then pacing around the kitchen sniffing the delicious smell that wafted through the house. Sometimes they were too hungry to spend time decorating the biscuits but occasionally I would make a double batch of gingerbread cookies that we decorated with icing and gave away as presents to schoolteachers.
I love using a spice that came from the Orient and was used in ancient Greece and Rome. It is astonishing to consider the ancient spice trade and the exchange of recipes that must have occurred along those routes. This exchange is still continuing because my daughter who lives in Fiji phoned recently to get my recipe for ginger biscuits and my sister in Sydney phoned searching for the family gingerbread recipe.
When I cook with ginger its exotic smell reminds me of the sacs of spices I saw being sold in Jordanian markets. This aroma conjures up memories of holidays and festivities in far off places and bring this world back to me in an Australian kitchen. In my more fanciful moments I wonder whether my father’s ancestors brought their love of ginger and Middle Eastern spices with them when they moved from Spain across France to finally settle in Italy.
When I look at these old hand-made cookie cutters, I think of the medieval spice trade in ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg and its impact on traditional European food. These spices were blended in a dough that was sweetened with easily available honey or treacle. It must have been a very expensive treat, yet gingerbread became so popular that wealthy landowners and royalty employed special gingerbread bakers to make large batches of the sweet cookies that were given as gifts and dispensed as largesse to their community.
Originally the gingerbread was prepared in timber molds with intricate designs of horse-drawn carriages, animals, family scenes and religious figures. By the mid-1400s the demand for gingerbread was so great that the gingerbread bakers had broken away from the traditional bakers and formed a separate Guild. That’s a lot of gingerbread being eaten. The ginger was probably useful in masking the bad breath and body odour of medieval society. Next time I am in Europe I am going in search of early timber cookie molds as they tell such wonderful stories.
Gradually cities including Strasbourg and Dijon in Alsace, Nürnberg in Germany, Toruń in Poland and St Gallen in Switzerland developed reputations for their gingerbread that differed in appearance and variations of the recipe. Some recipes contained more pepper, some were cake like and others firm biscuits. The French Pain d’épices didn’t contain any ginger, just spices.
‘Had I but one penny in the world, thou shouldst have it for gingerbread.’
Love’s Labor’s Lost. William Shakespeare
As gingerbread grew in popularity people other than the traditional baker wanted to cook it. By the 17th century tin makers were using scraps of leftover metal to make cookie cutters that they would sell to the local housewives and bakers. I have always taken cookie cutters for granted and never given their design much consideration other than for decorative purposes. However, I discovered there is quite a variety in shape and size of vintage cookie cutters. The shapes were simpler with little decoration. With tin being expensive and scarce the backs of the molds often conformed to the shape of the cookie cutter almost exactly with air holes and finger holes cut into the backs to loosen and push out the cookie dough. Sometimes there would be timber or metal handles soldered onto the backs. They were too expensive to throw away and were constantly repaired. By the 1800s as tin solder became more affordable, small spot welds gave way to longer larger welds which is a useful way to tell the vintage of a cookie cutter. However, as much of the early tin weld contains lead it isn’t a good idea to use these vintage cookie cutters for food.
Fortunately by the 1920s aluminium became available with the benefit of always remaining shiny after washing. It was also lighter and easier to use and didn’t corrode. Copper was particularly popular for decorative cookie cutters. After World War 2 plastic became a popular kitchen material for cookie cutters, practical but not in my mind as beautiful to use. The older cookie cutters with their patina of love and use are much more inviting.
Here is an old family gingerbread recipe that has been handed down from Great Aunt Betty whose family, the Athertons, explored the tablelands of North Queensland.
Aunty Betty’s Gingerbread
Preheat oven to 180°C. Butter a lamington tray, 30cm x 22cm
½ cup butter
½ cup sugar
1 egg, beaten gently
¾ cup treacle or golden syrup
2 ½ cups plain cake flour
1 ½ teaspoons bicarbonate of soda
1 heaped teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon, ground
pinch of salt
1 cup hot water
Cream the butter and sugar until soft and fluffy. Add the beaten egg and cream well to combine.
Add the treacle and continue to beat well. Gradually add the water and beat on a slow speed to combine well.
Sift together the flour, spices and salt, then add this slowly to the batter and beat until the mixture is smooth. It makes a wet sloppy mixture. Pour the cake mixture into the prepared lamington pan and bake for about 35 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean. Remove from the oven and cool in the tin.
Once the cake is cool, ice with a lemon glaze.
2/3 cup icing sugar and 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice.
Mix the lemon juice and the icing sugar together and pour over the still slightly warm cake. The icing will be very runny and clear but sets in a thin opaque icing as it cools. The cake is delicious either warm or at room temperature.