According to Rhonda Massingham Hart’s Making Gingerbread Houses, the first known recipe for was gingerbread developed in Greece around 4,000 years ago. In the 10th century, recipes for gingerbread appeared in China.
It’s believed that gingerbread was first baked in Europe at the end of the 11th century. During this time crusaders were returning from the Middle East and they brought with them recipes for spicy bread. In the 13th century, gingerbread was brought to Sweden by German immigrants.
The first documented trade of gingerbread dates to the 17th century where they were sold in monasteries, pharmacies and town square farmers’ markets. It was believed that gingerbread had medicinal properties.
The shapes of the gingerbread changed with the season, including flowers in the spring and birds in the fall. The first documented instance of baking figure-shaped gingerbread is from the court of Elizabeth I: she had gingerbread figures made in the likeness of some of her important guests.
The tradition of making decorated gingerbread houses started in Germany in the early 19th century around the time that the Brothers Grimm wrote the story of Hansel and Gretel. In this story, the main characters stumble upon a house made entirely of treats deep in the forest. It is unclear whether or not gingerbread houses were a result of the popular fairy tale or vice versa.
Gingerbread came to the Americas with settlers from Europe. Molasses, which was less expensive than sugar, soon became a common ingredient and produced a softer cookie. This happens to be the gingerbread I like the most!
Gingerbread quickly became popular throughout North America. American Cookery, by Amelia Simmons, the first known cookbook written by an American was published in 1796. It contained seven different recipes for gingerbread.