Ginger is a root spice from Indo-Malaysia long used in Oriental cuisine and heralded for its medicinal qualities. It soothes an upset stomach, invigorates the circulatory system and can help prevent the onset of the common cold. As early as 2000 BC, ginger was used in cooking, mainly in ginger - honey cakes available only to the wealthy and royal. Finally, in the 1200s AD, European explorers and traders introduced ginger to the West. Soon, a recipe of flour, precious honey and ginger spice was created and gingerbread was born. Medieval European ladies would bake this flat bread in various shapes such has hearts to ward off evil. Gingerbread was most plentiful, during this time, in Germany because of its extensive trade with the East. By the 1800s and the introduction of molasses, gingerbread became a maninstay of all, not just the wealthy. We are all familiar with the German folktale of Hansel and Gretel which prompted the creation of gingerbread houses, still popular today.
Gingerbread, or prianiki, was a favorite treat throughout Europe including Russia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland. In the beginning, prianiki was made of flour, honey and sometimes, egg. With the creation of leavening agents, such as baking soda and baking powder, prianiki took on height. Honey was an essential ingredient as refined sugar was not available in Europe or Russia yet.
Each country developed trade guilds who endeavored to create a better product than the next. Similar to bread baking, prianiki became a matter of pride for many communities. During the 1500 to 1800s, some of the most popular bakers of ginger bread were Nuremberg in Germany, Torun in Poland and Tula, Vyazma and Arkhangelsk in Russia. In Tula, bakers garnished their prianiki with berry jams while Vyazma introduced the use of molasses. Arkhangelsk created fancy little shaped cakes, bathed in colored icings.
Traditional prianiki is dense, spicy and chewy, not crunchy as is the case with modern ginger cookies. Prianiki were and are made in many shapes and are often stamped with a wooden press to produce a design on the surface of the cake. Possibly the most popular prianiki comes from Tula, south of Moscow and famed home of metal crafts and samovar production. Not surprising considering prainiki is perfect with a hot, dark cup of tea!
What follows is a traditional Russian recipe for prianiki. It's easy to prepare and sure to be a joy during the Holidays, or any time throughout the year. This recipe will make about 15 - 18 cakes. Of course, you can cut your dough into any desired shape.
1 oz butter
6 oz honey (I like wildflower honey best)
6 oz jam (plum is preferred, quince is good too)
8 oz plain flour
2 oz icing sugar (confectioner's sugar)
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp each cardomon, ginger, and cinnamon
1 tbs crushed blanched almonds
2 tbs freshly squeezed lemon juice
- Cream together butter and honey
- Add egg and beat
- Blend in baking soda, spices and almonds
- Add enough flour to make a soft ball of dough
- Cover with waxed paper and refrigerate for 1 hour
- Heat oven to 350 F and prepare a lightly floured board
- Roll out dough to 1/8" thickness
- With a 2 - 3" floured cutter, cut out an even number of circles
- Cut each circle in half
- Spread half with jam and place other half on top, sealing edges
- Place on greased baking sheet and bake for 10 minutes
- Reduce oven heat to 325 F and bake for 10 more minutes
- Cool cakes on a wire rack
- Combine lemon juice and icing sugar, drizzle over cooled cakes
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