Honey cookies have been around for hundreds of years. Over time, the honey cookie evolved to become what most of us know as gingerbread. Often thought to be a German tradition, gingerbread baking is found throughout Europe. There were several centers where gingerbread masters went to work, including Bratislava.
Early in its history, gingerbread was baked in monasteries for sacral purposes, on estates, and in peasant households. Additionally, there were gingerbread masters who, in the 17th century, had the exclusive rights to make gingerbread, except at Christmas and Easter when everyone was allowed to make gingerbread.
Early molds made from clay were used to bake the gingerbread cakes. As baking developed, wooden carved molds were used. In Bratislava, the art of gingerbread making was closely linked to woodcarving. To be a good gingerbread maker, you also had to be a good woodcarver.
Gingerbread molds came in various shapes and sizes, appropriate for the intended receiver. Horses, trumpets, rifles, animals, fairytale characters, dolls were favored among children. Youths and adults preferred heart-shaped gingerbread. Stages, farmer figures, ladies with fans, knights, cavalrymen, fools, devils, death figures, cradles, and several other designs were also popular with consumers. At the height of the gingerbread tradition, sacred images appeared alongside secular shapes. For example, Adam and Eve motifs, the Nativity, Christ on the cross, etc. were also commonly found.
Bratislava became the center of gingerbread making in the Hungarian Empire. The first former Hungarian Empire gingerbread maker’s guild, The Main Guild Treasury, was established in Bratislava in 1619. The Treasury administered the whole territory of the former Hungarian Empire. Later, many smaller, independent guilds were established, guaranteeing a high standard and professional approach to gingerbread making. The profession as a whole saw a decline in the late 19th century with the development of confectionery manufacturers which were gradually replacing the role gingerbread played in the household, and the cheap mass production of iron molds. Interest in the wooden molds dwindled and finally disappeared.
Today, gingerbread is still an important part of Czech and Slovak Christmas tradition. Methods and recipes differ from region to region, as do the shapes and decorations.
Honey Cookies - Medovniky (pronounced: meadow-neecky)
500 g all-purpose flour (110 g equals 1 cup, approx. 4 heaping cups equals 500 g)
125 g honey (slightly over 3oz. or 1/3 cup)
125 g unsalted butter (slightly over 1/3 cup), melted and cooled
190 g powder sugar (approx. 1 2/3 cup)
2 eggs (let warm to room temp.)
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp anise (optional)
Beat eggs and sugar together, add honey, butter and spices. Fold in flour with baking soda and mix into a smooth dough. Chill several hours. Allow dough to warm to room temperature before rolling it out onto a lightly floured surface, 1/4 inch thick. Cut various Christmas motifs with cookie cutters. Place on a dry cookie sheet, brush top with beaten egg and bake in a preheated oven (325-350 F). After you brushed the tops, you may choose to press raisins or nuts (slivered and halved almonds, halved or quartered walnuts or pecans) in the unbaked cookies. Plain cookies may be iced once cooled. Cookies are baked when you see that they raised a bit and they become light brown or pink (watch closely, up to 10 min.). Do not overbake. Quickly remove from baking sheet and put on cookie rack to cool. Store in covered Tupperware for up to a week or so. Store with a piece of bread or apple wrapped in a napkin to assist the softening process.