Ireland is known for its redheads and also, Edythe Preet discovers, for its ginger lovers. So this Christmas, make some ginger cookies, grab a glass of milk, and settle down with J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, now celebrating its 60th year.
With the holiday season in full swing, it’s a fair bet that after gifts and decorations the next big project on the to-do list is “make some cookies!”
As every child knows, it is an absolute must to leave a glass of milk and plate of cookies out for Santa on Christmas Eve, else the Jolly Elf might leave lumps of coal instead of presents, or even worse, bypass the house altogether! At least that’s what I believed.
In our home, cookie making began Thanksgiving weekend. The selection of itty-bitty goodies usually varied (especially as I got more involved in the baking), but three specialties always appeared on Santa’s plate. Mom made Italian biscotti, I honed my kitchen skills on chocolate chip Toll House, and we worked together to make Dad’s favorite: spicy, sugar-crusted, slightly chewy ginger cookies.
It never occurred to me that Dad’s penchant for that particular treat was anything other than one of his personal quirks (like the drifts of nutmeg he always grated fresh on Mom’s baked custard). Recently, however, this conversation with a Dublin-born-and-raised pal revealed that Dad’s preference had deep genetic roots. Thinking I might write about gingerbread, I asked Paul if it is popular in Ireland. “Yes, sure,” he replied, “but not as much as ginger cookies.” Before I had time to digest that food fact, he continued, “No matter what happens – from christenings to nasty storms – the antidote is always a cup of sweet hot milky tea and some ginger cookies.”
According to Paul, ginger cookies come in two forms: two-dunk and one-dunk. Two-dunkers are rock-hard and must be dipped in hot tea at least twice or biting one could chip a tooth. One-dunkers, however, can only withstand one brief dip and must be gobbled up quickly lest most of the cookie remain in the teacup. Well, waddya know – Dad was a one-dunk ginger cookie man.
Having discovered that little tidbit, I remembered Dad also loved not only gingerbread that Mom baked regularly for him once winter winds blew, but also ginger marmalade and candied ginger (both of which my Italian-American mother thought tasted medicinal). Turns out, her opinion was spot on.
Ginger is actually the rhizome (underground stem) of a semi-tropical perennial plant with large green leaves and spiked clusters of densely packed reddish flowers. Native throughout southeastern Asia, ginger probably originated in China, where every part of the plant has been a respected medicinal for more than 4,000 years. The rhizome’s brown papery skin is used to relieve gas; the peeled flesh to treat nausea, combat dysentery, and ward off scurvy; and juice extracted from the leaves to increase appetite.
By the first century A.D., traders had carried ginger to the Mediterranean region where, in addition to its medicinal virtues, it became a prized flavoring agent in early Greek and Roman cuisine. The root’s popularity lapsed, however, with the fall of the Roman Empire and did not re-emerge in Europe until the eighth century when the Venetian Republic established a monopoly on the spice trade. Among all the exotic flavorings flowing from central Asia and neighboring regions, one of the most coveted and expensive was ginger. By the 15th century, a single ounce of powdered ginger cost as much as a full-grown sheep.
With ginger commanding such an exorbitant price, it was only used regularly to flavor soups and meat stews for nobles and royalty. Adding ginger to breads and pastries began in the 15th century, and the earliest documentation of figure-shaped gingerbread biscuits occurred in the 16th-century court of Elizabeth I of England. A great fan of ginger, Elizabeth often presented her guests with gingerbread figures made in their likenesses. Thus, she is credited with “inventing” Christmas’s most famous cookie: the gingerbread man. Since the Anglo invasion and settlement of Ireland occurred during Elizabeth I’s reign, it isn’t surprising that the Queen’s preferred biscuit became a household staple in Ireland as well.
Coincidentally, Queen Elizabeth I had hair the color of her favorite cookie. No disrespect intended, but I’m betting Elizabeth inspired the term “ginger-haired.” While red hair is the rarest natural hair color in humans, occurring less than 2% of the time, the phenomenon manifests in 10% of Ireland’s population! Geneticists theorize: a) the non-tanning skin associated with red hair may have been an evolutionary advantage in far-northern climates where sunlight is scarce, and b) lighter skin pigmentation prevents rickets in colder climates by encouraging higher levels of Vitamin D production, plus also allowing the individual to retain heat better than individuals with darker skin. Theory aside, one thing’s certain – the genetic anomaly has blessed Ireland with an abundance of beautiful people!
And then there’s The Ginger Man by Irish-American author J.P. Donleavy. Banned in Ireland and America when published in 1955, it tells of a rogue who attends Dublin’s Trinity College merely as a way to pass the time until his rich father dies, and instead of pursuing knowledge, pursues a life of nonstop drunkenness and debauchery. Now celebrating its 60th anniversary of being in constant print, the novel has sold more than 45 million copies, and, for its stream-of-consciousness lyrical prose, has been named one of The Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels.
Before closing this investigation into Ireland’s love of ginger, it would be remiss if I omitted ginger beer and ginger ale. The former’s story is simple. Some time in mid-19th-century Victorian England, some pub owner in Yorkshire added powdered ginger to a tankard of beer and stirred it with a red-hot poker. The cloudy brew sputtered and steamed, and ginger beer was born. Soon every tavern on both sides of the Atlantic was fermenting its own version from scratch, some containing more than 11% alcohol!
Ginger ale, on the other hand, is a sparkling non-alcoholic beverage that, like other now-famous early sodas, was invented by a pharmacist. In 1852, Dr. Thomas Cantrell, an American apothecary and surgeon living in Belfast, Ireland, was producing aerated mineral waters and tonics for medicinal purposes. Cantrell’s “ginger ale” was golden colored, sweet, had strong ginger flavor, was safe to serve to children, and had the bonus therapeutic effect of calming queasy tummies. Cantrell described it as “sparkling and clear as the choicest champagne, as having a most agreeable odor, perfectly free from any intoxicating quality, and yet eminently warming and invigorating, pleasant to the taste and pleasant to look at.” Teaming up with local beverage manufacturer Grattan and Company, Cantrell’s invention was marketed in bottles embossed with the slogan “The Original Makers of Ginger Ale.”
It occurs to me that in addition to that plate of ginger cookies you’ll be leaving out for Santa this year, in case all the other treats he’s been eating on his rounds have given him a belly ache, a soothing glass of ginger ale might be even more appreciated than a glass of milk. Sláinte!
1⁄2 cup shortening
1⁄2 cup sugar
21⁄2 cups flour
11⁄2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp powdered ginger
1⁄2 tsp powdered cloves
1 cup molasses
1 cup very hot water
Preheat oven to 350F. Grease one 9x9x2-inch pan or one large loaf pan and line with waxed paper. In a large bowl, cream shortening, sugar, and egg until fluffy. In a separate bowl, sift
together flour, baking soda, salt, and spices. In a small bowl, combine molasses and hot water. Add dry ingredients and molasses mixture to egg mixture alternately, beating well after each addition. Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake 45-60 minutes, rotating pan halfway through the baking process. When finished cooking, let gingerbread cool completely. Makes 9 3-inch squares or 1 loaf.
Dad’s One-Dunk Ginger Cookies
2 cups flour
1 tsp cinnamon
2 1⁄2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp powdered ginger
1⁄4 tsp salt
1 beaten egg
1 cup sugar
3⁄4 cup shortening
1⁄3 cup molasses a small bowl of extra sugar
Preheat oven to 375F. Sift dry ingredients together and set aside.
In a large bowl, combine egg, sugar, shortening, and molasses, and mix thoroughly. Add dry ingredients to egg mixture and mix until completely combined. Roll dough into 1-inch balls. Roll each ball in the bowl of sugar until covered, then place on a baking sheet approximately 2-inches apart. Bake 10-15 minutes, checking after 10 minutes. Cookies are done when the top surfaces develop cracks. Remove from oven and let cool for 10 minutes, then place the cookies on wire racks and let cool completely. Store cookies in an air-tight container. Makes approximately 4 dozen.
My Gluten-Free Gingerbread Men
2 1⁄4 cups gluten-free flour
1 cup blanched almond flour
1⁄2 tsp xanthan gum
1⁄4 tsp baking soda
1⁄2 tsp salt
1 1⁄2 tsp powdered ginger
1 tsp powdered ginger
1⁄4 tsp powdered cloves
6 tbsp soft butter
1⁄2 cup brown sugar
1 large egg
1⁄2 cup molasses
1 tsp vanilla
In a medium bowl, whisk together all the dry ingredients, set aside. In a large bowl, beat the butter and brown sugar until light and fluffy. Gently stir in egg, molasses, and vanilla, adding as little air as possible. Add the dry ingredients and mix well. Divide the dough in half, wrap each piece in plastic wrap, flatten to disks, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight. When ready to bake, heat oven to 350F. Remove dough from plastic wrap and roll each about 1/4 inch thick. Cut dough with gingerbread man cutters and use a spatula to place each cookie on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Chill the baking sheets of cut cookies in the refrigerator for 15 minutes, then bake for 8-12 minutes. Cookies will be firm on the edges but still somewhat soft in the center when done. Cool completely before storing in airtight containers. Makes 24-30 cookies.
(King Arthur Flour recipe)
This article was originally published in the December / January 2016 issue of Irish America. ♦