When I was in year three, we ‘studied’ the Ancient Egyptians for a term or two. In art class, we made papier-mache sarcophagi; in maths we added up the number of stones used to build pyramids; we drew pictures of the ancient gods and goddesses of Egypt and wrote little descriptions about them in what must have been history lessons. These endeavours culminated in an end-of-year assembly in which we pretended to be the workers who built the Great Pyramid of Giza and sang about our pay being merely “bread and beer and radishes”. No one thought anything of it back then, but I wonder if the spectacle of a group of highly privileged, mostly white, children playacting at being slave labourers would raise eyebrows now (I think…probably). (In any case, the theory that the workers who built the Great Pyramid were slaves has been thrown into doubt, but that was definitely the prevailing view back in 1995).
Even though I have two (!) degrees in history, my education in Ancient History didn’t get much further than my year three classroom. So I was at a bit of a disadvantage when I was introduced, at a work social, to an Eminent Classicist, which then required a bit of one-on-one small talk. Casting about, I ended up asking “What are the key debates occurring in your field at the moment?” (If you are ever caught in a lift with an academic, this question is a good one).
“Like in any other field, really,” said the Eminent Classicist, “we’re revisiting the idea of empire. Recasting Rome and really examining it as an imperial power and assessing its structural impact on the ancient world. Looking at the relationship between the metropole and the outer reaches of empire and their relationship to those centres of power. And with Egypt, too.” Immediately the ancient world became material and real, a place of power relations, trade routes, supply lines, not a hazy place of mythical creatures and roaming gods. Inspired, I read Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War. And then I started researching how to build a gingerbread pyramid. Both reactions, I feel, tell you everything you need to know about me.
I wanted to pay a bit of homage to Ancient Egyptian agriculture in my gingerbread. The principle grains grown in Ancient Egypt were barley (for beer); for bread, the ancient wheat varieties grown were most similar to emmer wheat or einkorn. The problem was that it was difficult for me to get hold of these except by ordering them online, which for the sake of speed I did not wish to do. So instead I turned to khorasan wheat, also known as kamut (which is a trademark), an ancient grain which is said to have been reintroduced in modern times by an American airman who sent grains which had been found in an Egyptian tomb back to his family. Like all good stories, it is apocryphal, but the grain is likely to have originated in the Fertile Crescent – good enough for me under the circumstances.
In addition to a (tiny) bit of Ancient Egyptian credibility, khorasan wheat adds a nutty flavour and sandy texture to the gingerbread which works well with the rich depth of the spices. If you want to forgo making a gingerbread house, pyramid, or any other structure and instead stamp out shapes using cookie cutters – or indeed just roll out and flatten balls of dough straight onto a baking sheet – the compulsive taste of this gingerbread would be worth it.
This post is part of my challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the showstopper challenge for week eight (biscuit week) of series three: making a gingerbread structure (not a house!)
Recipe by me!
NB: The first listed quantities below should serve to make a small to medium gingerbread structure, such as a house. Should you wish to make something larger, use the second listed quantities (in brackets). Method remains the same (though you might need a bigger bowl).
If you want to decorate your gingerbread (or fuse it together) with royal icing, you can certainly make your own with icing sugar and egg white – or you can do what I did and buy a pack of royal icing sugar and make it up according to packet instructions.
- 230g (345g) unsalted butter
- 280g (420g) plain flour
- 320g (480g) khorasan/kamut flour
- 3 TBS (4.5 TBS) molasses (or dark treacle – it’s just for flavour)
- 3 TBS (4.5 TBS) golden syrup
- 2 tsp (3.5 tsp) baking soda
- 180g (270g) dark muscovado sugar
- 2 tsp (3 tsp) ground ginger
- 1/2 tsp (3/4 tsp) cinnamon
- 1/3 tsp (1/2 tsp) ground cloves
- 1/2 tsp (3/4 TSP) salt
- If you’re going to make a gingerbread house or other structure, you’ll need to have a template ready. There are plenty of these you can download if wished. If you want to try your hand at a pyramid, I used a square of 40x40cm and tried to make equilateral triangles out of it (which didn’t quite work out, hence the missing sides). If you’re going to stamp out shapes, don’t bother with templates and just get your cutters out.
- Preheat oven to 200C. Line at least two baking sheets with baking paper.
- In a large pan, melt the butter, sugar, golden syrup and molasses or treacle together and stir until combined. Set aside to cool for a few minutes.
- In a large bowl, sift together the plain flour, khorasan/kamut flour, baking soda, spices and salt and make a well in the centre. Pour in the butter-sugar mixture and stir it in until thoroughly combined.
- Knead together with your hands to form a stiff dough – you’ll have to wait until it’s cool enough to handle.
- Divide the mixture into four and roll out to a thickness of about 5mm if you’re making a structure (they need to be thick enough) or a little thinner if just making biscuits: the thickness of an old £1 coin, which is 3.15mm, is a good guide. Cut or stamp our your desired shapes.
- Bake the sections – large wall-type shapes will need 12-15 minutes (though keep an eye on the edges) and do need to be baked until firm. Cut-out shapes may need from 8-12 minutes (though this depends on size – obviously give it less for little shapes) and can be baked a little less crisp as they don’t need to support themselves.
- If making a structure, you’re going to want to take your shapes out of the oven and, before they’ve hardened completely, trim them against your templates to ensure that the sides are straight and clean-edged. Skip this step if you’re stamping shapes with cutters.
- Let cool completely on a wire rack until hardened.
- If making a structure, make up your royal icing as per packet instructions (start with half a box, erring on the side of keeping the icing stiff), fill a small-nozzled piping bag with the icing and them glue the pieces together with it as per your guide. If you are making cut-out biscuits and want to ice them…just do the same thing, but just decorate the surface of your biscuits instead of using the royal icing to weld them together.