Monday, 8 December 2008

Christmas Sweets and Treats - Crystallised Ginger and Gingerbread Men

Ginger has been used for over 5000 years when the Indians and ancient Chinese considered it a tonic root for all ailments. The Romans used Ginger as a spice but when the Roman Empire fell Ginger almost disappeared from the pantry until the Arabs took control of the spice trade from the East. Thanks to Marco Polo's trip to the Far East, Ginger came back into favour in Europe, becoming not only a much coveted spice, but also a very expensive one. Back in the 14th century a pound of Ginger held a value equal to that of a whole live sheep! In medieval times it was commonly imported in a preserved form and used to make sweets.

Henry VIII used Ginger as a remedy against the plague and Queen Elizabeth I is credited with inventing the Gingerbread Man, which has become a popular Christmas treat. Queen Elizabeth presented courtiers with Gingerbread likenesses of themselves. The Queen's habit of jesting with her court gives this tale some credence. Elizabeth's cooks relished opportunities for lavish decoration, and the Gingerbread men she handed out may have included gold leafing and other outlandish decorative touches.

Grimms Fairytales popularised Gingerbread decorations in the tale of Hansel and Gretel and in the 17th century Nuremberg in Germany, became known as the Gingerbread capital, thanks to the elaborate Gingerbread scenes that the bakers of that city would create, which included complex Gingerbread houses, animals, and people decorated with gold leaf. Only professional Gingerbread bakers were supposed to make Gingerbread, except during the Christmas season when the rules were relaxed.

In the 1800s Crystallized Ginger began to appear and in the Colonies it was often served at the end of a dinner to aid digestion. Up until then, Ginger had just been available dried or powdered. Crystallised Ginger is the Ginger root that has been dried and preserved with a light sugar coating. It is pungent with a spicy-sweet flavour and is moist and chewy. Try it with Château de Sainte Hélène – it's divine! Sauternes pairs beautifully with crystallised fruits!

Gingerbread Men

3 tbsp golden syrup
75g caster sugar
1 tbsp water
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp mixed spice
1½ tsp ground ginger
75g butter
½ tsp baking soda
225g plain flour

Put the syrup, sugar, water and spices in a saucepan and melt over gentle heat. Increase the heat and bring to the boil, stirring well. Take off the heat and add the butter and baking soda. Add just enough sifted flour to make a firm dough then set aside to cool.

Once cold roll the dough out and cut into shape with a sharp knife (or with pastry cutters). Decorate with currants and place on a greased baking sheet. Place in an oven pre-heated to 180ºC and bake until crisp and golden. You can decorate them with coloured icing for a festive look.

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