A gingerbread man is a form of gingerbread cookie, commonly presented at Christmas. The traditional version may be presented plain, dressed with chunks of sugar or icing, or with candies forming his major features. Gingerbread women are also made, although the gingerbread man is far more common. Many holiday decorations incorporate these cookies. Conventionally, the gingerbread man is made with legs slightly apart and arms outstretched, and many consumers have traditions about which order the extremities are eaten in.
The gingerbread man allegedly first appeared in the court of Queen Elizabeth I, who presented courtiers with gingerbread likenesses of themselves. The Queen's habit of jesting with her court gives this tale some credence. This example of the gingerbread man was probably darker and more savory than the version we are accustomed to, as well as thicker and more cake-like. Elizabeth's cooks relished opportunities for lavish decoration, and the gingerbread men she handed out may have included gold leafing and other outlandish decorative touches.
The gingerbread man also has a long history in mainland Europe, where he appeared as a Christmas tree decoration and in elaborate holiday scenes. The gingerbread man often had a gingerbread house to live in, with gingerbread animals, trees, and decorations made from candies and icing. Especially in Germany, gingerbread Christmas decorations are often quite elaborate, stemming from a 16th century tradition of fanciful gingerbread creations, popularized by Grimm's Fairy Tales and the story of Hansel and Gretel. In the 17th century, Nuremberg, Germany, became known as the gingerbread capital, thanks to the elaborate gingerbread scenes that the bakers of that city would create, which included complex gingerbread houses, animals, and people decorated with gold leaf, foil, and other decorations. The gingerbread man probably reached his zenith during this period, when only professional gingerbread bakers were supposed to make gingerbread, except during the Christmas season when the rules were relaxed.
To make gingerbread men, cream 2/3 cup butter, ½ cup brown sugar, one teaspoon cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon cloves, two teaspoons ground ginger, and a pinch of salt. Add one egg, mix, and then add ¾ cup molasses and mix again to thoroughly integrate the ingredients. Sift three cups flour, ½ teaspoon baking power, and 1 teaspoon baking soda. Combine the wet and dry ingredients and chill the resulting dough for one hour, before rolling out in a ¼ inch (approximately ¾ centimeter) thick sheet.
Using a cookie cutter or a knife, cut out the gingerbread men and transfer to a nonstick baking sheet. Bake at 375° Fahrenheit (190° Celsius) for 8-10 minutes. Cool completely on a rack before decorating.