The smell of Christmas: How a small company is bringing Czech artistry to gingerbread
The traditional gingerbread recipe is a major cultural aspect of life in Czech Republic
For hundreds of years, the sweet brown cookie known as gingerbread has been a major cultural aspect of life in the Czech Republic.
Seated at her kitchen table in St. John's, Jindra Maskova recalled one tradition where gingerbread dough was made when a daughter was born, and it was finally used when she was married.
"So it was aging somewhere … and it was just something for special occasions," she said.
The recipe originally contained honey, rye flour and spices. "It was so hard because there was no fat, no eggs," said Maskova.
"Nowadays, we put eggs and we put a little bit of butter, but before it was just mixed rye flour, which is very different."
Czech gingerbread is typically made in the shape of a heart, decorated with white icing and finished with a red ribbon, and is usually given as a present.
There are only two kinds of people. Some people eat it immediately in front of me — and the other half just keep it forever.- Jindra Maskova
And it isn't like the typical gingerbread cookie common in North America, Maskova explained. There's no molasses, for one thing. Instead, honey is used, which makes a difference you can taste.
"I find American gingerbread is fat and molasses, so it's kind of crispy," she said. "Whereas the Czech style is chewy, and it just gets better with time. Usually you have to bake it [at the] beginning of December so it's nice and soft for Christmas."
Today, Maskova bakes gingerbread in her home to sell through her business, Gingerly, using that Czech-style recipe with a modern sensibility. Even the spice mix she uses is mailed to her from the Czech Republic.
"They last months and months," she said. "So people are afraid they won't last, but they actually are just getting better with time."
Maskova officially started Gingerly in 2012, but she'd been making gingerbread for friends and family for ages. Baking was something she enjoyed, and it brought in a little extra money.
"I was always a creative person, so I just felt that [I] needed to do something," she said.
Her cookies come topped with beautiful decorations in icing that look more like delicate lacing than sugar, and the designs are all from Maskova's imagination.
One depicts a bunch of lavender flowers inspired by the lavender tree in her backyard. The most popular design has a teapot on it, she said.
"When it comes to decorating you need a steady hand. You kind of have to be really quiet — almost not breathing."
Maskova's creations recently earned her the award in the most esthetically pleasing category at CookieCon in St. John's..
"I don't use any artificial pigments. It's all natural," she said.
"So, I use beet powder for pink and green is matcha green tea, and blue is spirulina powder … and blue with beet makes purple. And then I also do yellow with sea buckthorn powder … and cocoa powder makes brown. So I'm a little bit limited."
When it comes to decorating you need a steady hand, you kind of have to be really quiet — almost not breathing.- Jindra Maskova
There are certain times of the year when more orders come in, such as the major holidays like Halloween, Easter and Mother's Day. Christmas is the busiest season for Maskova, when Gingerly becomes a full-time commitment.
"I don't have any weekends or anything. But I don't bake in the summer or off-season.… I don't do it," she said. It's busy, then nothing."
Many of her customers have told her the gingerbread isn't going to be eaten, but hung from their Christmas tree as an ornament. "It's great to see people come in and they say, 'Oh, I have your cookie for years in my kitchen and it still looks the same,'" laughed Maskova.
"There are only two kinds of people. Some people eat it immediately in front of me — and the other half just keep it forever."