I’ve found some lovely cookie cutters while I’ve been researching for Gingerbread Bride.
Flat hard wafers seem to have first been made in 7th century Persia, and spread into Europe through the Muslim conquest of Spain. And gingerbread was a great favourite in England from medieval times.
Wooden moulds to shape the dough gave way to metal cutters in or around the 16th century. They were made on the spot to the buyer’s specification, every one different.
Historically cookie cutters were made by family members and itinerant tinsmiths who travelled the country. Often the tinsmith would spend several days making cake tins, pans and pails. The cookie cutters for the most part were made from left-over tin scraps. Some interesting examples have turned up showing they were made from flattened baking powder tins and canisters.
As well as the dough and the cutters, I’ve been researching the story. First written down in the 1870s, the gingerbread man is part of a much older classification of folk tales: the runaway food stories. The British tradition seems to have leant towards pancakes and bunnocks, but the gingerbread story, when it first appeared in print, came with the note that a servant girl told it to the writer’s children, and that she had it from an old lady. So I feel quite justified in using the story in my novella for the Bluestocking Belles box set. Here’s the excerpt where my heroine remembers the story.
Mary smiled with satisfaction as she placed the last of the little gingerbread ladies into the box. In the four weeks she had been at Aunt Dorothy’s, she had learned a number of recipes, and helped with all kinds of baking, but the gingerbread biscuits that the cook of the Ulysses taught her had become her special contribution to the success of the shop.
Making them took her back to the galley where Cookie ruled with a rod of iron over various helpers, but always had time for a lonely little girl. She could still hear his deep gravelly voice telling the story of the run-away gingerbread horse, or it might be a dog, or whatever cutter shape he had used at the time. She would be hovering over the tray of hot biscuits, waiting for them to cool enough to ice and eat.
“And he ran, and he ran,” Cookie would say, “with all the village behind him: the old lady, the fat squire, the pretty milkmaid, and the hungry sailor. But none of them could catch the gingerbread horse.”
The story would continue, with the gingerbread horse escaping one would-be eater after another, and mocking them all, until Cookie had iced the first biscuit, and she would then wait, patient and giggling, for the gingerbread horse to encounter the river, and the fox.
First, he’d put the horse over her back. Then, as the river water rose, on her head. And finally, she would tip her head back, and he would perch the biscuit on her nose, and say the words she had been waiting for. “And bite, crunch, swallow, that was the end of the gingerbread horse.”
Aunt Dorothy had round cutters, and star cutters, and cutters in the shape of various animals. When the miller’s daughter asked for gingerbread ladies and gentlemen for her wedding breakfast, Mary had been delighted with the conceit, and the cutters the tinker made to her pencil drawings worked very well.
The icing gave them clothes and features; a whole box of little gingerbread grooms, and a box of little gingerbread brides. The miller’s daughter would be very pleased.