The word gingerbread evokes some of the sweetest memories of youth, from pungent holiday cookies shaped and decorated like little people to fluffy birthday cakes topped with whipped cream. At the same time, the term is something of a misnomer because few of gingerbread's countless variations resemble what we usually think of as bread.
According to the history books, gingerbread may have been loaflike in medieval times, when damsels would present hard-baked rounds flavored with ginger and honey to knights headed off to the battlefield. But centuries of modification changed it drastically―both in Europe, where it was first made into cookies shaped like people as part of Christmas celebration, and in the New World. By the 19th century, "gingerbread" in the United States had come to include both the thin, dense, cookielike form familiar on the Continent as well as a new, softer version akin to cake.
Today, it seems, just about any recipe that calls for flour, sugar, and ginger is known as gingerbread. Does it matter? Do we appreciate an upside-down, ginger-spiked cake topped with pears any less because of muddled etymology? Take a bite, and get back to us.