Gingerbread is a tasty tradition. For centuries, the festive holiday treat played important roles on holiday tables and in children’s stories. From the witch’s cottage in “Hansel and Gretel” to the Gingerbread Man who dared to run away, gingerbread fascinates me. I’ve sometimes contemplated dropping bread crumbs to help me find my way home, and pondered what would happen if my food started talking in rhymes, but it wasn’t until recently that I experienced the joy of making homemade gingerbread.
Hänsel und Gretel, 1884. Courtesy of New York Public Library.
Inspiration for a gingerbread tenement house struck months ago, and I was excited to learn that my colleague, Kat Lloyd, shares a fascination with this spicy architectural wonder.
As December drew closer, our research phase for a gingerbread tenement house began in earnest. How do you score gingerbread bricks? Would the walls be sturdier if made from one piece, or several? Would the tenement stand? Could we win a trophy at the holiday party bake-off? The internet provided ample resources, including instructional videos, photographs, and discussion forums galore. In the end, Martha Stewart’s recipe seemed the most trustworthy, and provided a tasty and solid canvas for our work.
Throughout the process, we learned a lot. Gingerbread dough is sticky and really needs to be chilled. And parchment paper can be a baker’s savior. We discovered how hard it can be to find meringue powder for royal icing, and were amazed by its mortar-like strength.
Once we baked our building blocks, we turned to our partners in the Education Department for the construction phase. Together we shaped the cornice from black licorice, affixed a fire escape and windows, and willed the walls to stand tall. They are still standing and I couldn’t be more pleased with our handiwork!
Our completed gingerbread tenement house!
As a side note, gingerbread is a descendant of lebkuchen, a German spice cookie discussed on the Museum’s new Shop Life tour. To learn more, watch this YouTube video in which educator and food historian Sarah Lohman creates traditional lebkuchen inspired by an 1840s recipe.
Happy holidays from the Tenement Museum education team!