Gingerbread Husbands: an Elizabethan All Hallow's Eve recipe
For so may reasons, we at the Darling household do not celebrate Halloween, but while perusing my vintage cookbooks I came across this really charming and historically rich recipe that used to be popular at “Halloween”. Until the Victorians and Brothers Grimm moved it further towards the Christmas season.
We do however mark “All Hallow’s Eve”, which means the night before a Holy day. The early Christians created All Saint’s Day, Nov 1st, in order to inspire change in our old pagan ways. Of course, it didn’t help much in ushering out the old Druid and Celtic celebrations of ‘Samhain’ (as Halloween was previously known), but some interesting non-ghosty superstitions have arisen from this time.
To cite the book in which I found this tradition; “On All Hallow’s Eve or Hallowe’en, the young maids of the villages had to eat a Gingerbread Husband to ensure they would find a real husband! Gingerbread was often shaped into dolls for feasts and revels. There was always a gingerbread stall at fairs selling ‘fairings’ or gingerbreads”.
It is said that the very idea of Gingerbread made in the shape of Husbands (or, “men”) were in fact inspired by Queen Elizabeth I who would order them baked and decorated in the likeness of her suitors. Of course, as we well know, anything beloved by royal women soon becomes the height of fashion, and in this case, eventually tradition among her subjects. Not much seems to have changed in 417 years!
Now, we ladies aren’t quite as in need of a husband to ensure our survival and insurance against destitution, or ability to maintain one’s status like we once did (it’s rare I say this, but thank you modernity). So rather than take this one on its superstitious and desperate measures, we will instead bake and eat them for romantic reason. What single woman wouldn’t want to munch on a biscuit that could potentially bring a sweet and yet warm and spicy gentleman into her life over the coming months?
Gingerbread men as we know them now are synonymous with Christmas, and so incredibly popular, a former President and First Lady requested one year that famed children’s author and illustrator Tasha Tudor made some exclusively for the White House Christmas tree.
Husbands, and the joy of Christmas, that’s a biscuit I can get behind.
Having mulled all this over, there is no greater recipe for this time of year that so perfectly aligns with The Darling Academy’s values. Of course, we had to make them.
How to make traditional Gingerbread Men & Husbands
Makes around 18 large, or 24 smaller gingerbread husbands.
Ingredients for Gingerbread Husbands
- 450g (2 ¾ cups) plain flour
- 1 Dessertspoon Ground Ginger
- 1 Dessertspoon Ground Cinnamon
- Pinch of Salt
- 125g (½ cup) butter
- 4 tbsp Black Treacle (Molasses)
- 225g (just under 1 cup) Soft Brown Sugar
- 1 tsp Bicarbonate of Soda
- 1 tbsp Milk
- Optional: currants, raisins, chocolate, icing or extras to decorate
- Sift the flour with the spices and the salt into a large mixing bowl.
- Warm butter, treacle and sugar, until sugar dissolves and treacle melts, stirring continuously.
- Let the sugar mixture cool a little before stirring into flour mixture.
- Dissolve bicarbonate of soda in milk and add this to the mixture to make a pastry-like dough (may may need a splash more milk here to get the right consistency).
- Chill in the refrigerator for about 40 minutes - ample time to enjoy a cup of tea and;
- Pre-heat the oven to 170°c/340°f/Gas Mark 3.
- Line a couple of baking trays with greaseproof paper, or use a silicone liner.
- Pre-heat the oven to 170°c/340°f/Gas Mark 3.
- Roll out your gingerbread dough on a floured board, and either with a cutter or if you’re creative “free-hand” and cut out your husband shapes. The thicker you roll it (no more than 1cm) will ensure a softer bake. Thinner and the gingerbread will have more snap.
- If you’d like to add a smile indent, this is the time to do it. Who wouldn’t want a smiling husband?
- Place your husbands on your greased or lined baking tray, and bake for 15 minutes or until evenly brown, smaller husbands may need less time.
- Remove from oven and place on a cooling rack. You may want to transfer them with a palette knife. The husbands will harden on cooling.
- Eat and enjoy as-is, or decorate as you fancy.
Oh and as always, make sure to enjoy with a good cup of tea!
We used the curve of the husband’s arm on the cutter to make the indent of the smile, and we had some of these fun eyes hanging about the baking cupboard which we adhered to the gingerbread with melted chocolate.
Speaking of melted chocolate: I find it most shocking that these husbands could dare to be naked when approaching fair maidens, so we melted some baker’s milk chocolate and gave them trousers. An appropriate and tasty upgrade for a rather historic recipe - and we thought people in Elizabethan times were prudes?
Happy husband baking!
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Cooking the books
This recipe was first published in “Christmas and Festive Day recipes” by Sara Paston-Williams. Be quick, it’s out of print!
The Darling Academy included this receipt as part of our “Cooking the Books” series, and all rights remain with the original author.
If like me, you are particularly interested in food history and curiosities, “Sugar and Sweets” by Oxford University Press is a great book too.
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