Spoonfuls of Germany

The truth about Hänsel and Gretel


Gingerbread house

We had several inches of snow at Thanksgiving. Our house with its lit windows created a winter wonderland look – like the gingerbread house in Hänsel and Gretel. It put me in the mood to make a gingerbread house.

As I looked through recipes and assembled ingredients and patterns, it hit me that I do not know much about the origin of the gingerbread house tradition. I vaguely recalled a witch’s gingerbread house as the crime scene in Hänsel and Gretel, a fairytale by the Grimm Brothers.

When I looked into it, I came across an article in the German news magazine Der Spiegel from July 1964. That article says, in the summer of 1962, the German high-school teacher Georg Ossegg, an amateur archeologist, found the remains of a woman in the remote woods of the Spessart mountains. Ossegg determined the woman had been killed, and then burned in an oven. Not far from the site, he found an iron box with baking utensils and a handwritten gingerbread recipe.

Ossegg claimed the woman was Katharina Schrader, a gingerbread baker in the mid-17th century. According to what he pieced together from archives and forensic studies, Katharina had learned the trade in a monastery from where she also obtained her “secret” gingerbread recipe.

Katharina sold her gingerbread at the Nuremberg market, and with such success that it drew not only lots of customers, but also the envy of another baker, Hans Metzler. In 1647 he denounced Katharina as a witch. Thanks to her prominent connections she was let go. Katharina relocated to a remote area in the Spessart where Metzler, accompanied by his younger sister Grete, hunted her down. They killed her and burned her in one of Katharina’s own ovens. However, the Metzler siblings did not find the gingerbread recipe they had come for.

Gingerbread house

Based on Georg Ossegg’s findings, a book entitled The Truth about Hänsel and Gretel – The Documentation of the Fairytale by the Grimm Brothers (Die Wahrheit über Hänsel und Gretel – Die Dokumentation des Märchens der Brüder Grimm) was published by Hans Traxler – just in time for the Grimm Brothers’ centennial in 1963. The book included photos, maps, and drawings of the site. It created quite a sensation that the Grimm Brothers, who were the German storytellers of the 19th century, allegedly based one of their most popular stories on a heinous crime.

Georg Ossegg did not get a chance to enjoy his new fame because he simply did not exist. Like the whole story about the murder out of gingerbread greed, Ossegg was an invention of Hans Traxler, a German caricaturist and satirical writer. Traxler wanted to parody the fashionable pseudo-archeological books of the time. Der Spiegel reported that Traxler admitted he had scavenged the baking utensils from his daughter’s dollhouse kitchen, and had hand-copied the gingerbread recipe from the classic Dr. Oetker cookbook!

This story behind the story kept me chuckling while I made my gingerbread house.

For full disclosure: I wanted the gingerbread house to look as natural as possible without any artificially colored candy. As decoration I used only icing made of confectioners’ sugar and egg whites, chocolate-covered and yogurt-covered raisins, chopped dried kiwis for the trees, and unsweetened organic coconut flakes for the snow.

My husband, who took the photos as always, snuck a bottlecap into the picture. I objected first but he insisted, saying it shows the scale of the gingerbread house. This technique goes back to the days when he started out as an archeological photographer. I could tell how big that gingerbread house is from the soreness of my hand after piping all that icing but now I also have a visual proof of it.

Gingerbread house




19 thoughts on “The truth about Hänsel and Gretel

  1. It is a beautiful gingerbread house! I’ve made quite a few over the years but not lately so thank you for sharing yours and the story as well.

  2. When the title of this blog article appeared in my reader, the first idea i had was HANS TRAXLER 😀 I adore his book! I had to laugh a lot when I was reading your entry even though I am obviously too late to tell you about the truth… that’s out there…
    Back to gingerbread houses: my aunt Bärbel and my mother used to bake one for my sister and me. Every year, we were very excited to see if we would get one for Christmas or not..

  3. Intrigue and ingenuity all in one blog. Such fun!

  4. Pingback: Spoonfuls of Germany: The Truth About Hänsel and Gretel | Young Germany

  5. Such a lovely gingerbread house you’ve made there!! And that story… brilliant 😀

  6. Very, very nice. I know how much work they are. In 1976 I found a gingerbread log-cabin recipe from Sunset (a Western stare area magazine). The logs are flat and spacers hold them up. No worries of icing holding the roof. Still edible after a week or so. Now my grandkids do it.

    • Thanks Donna. I am actually hoping it will still be edible after a few weeks… Too funny, just as I was starting to type this comment a minute ago, I heard my husband yelling at one of our dogs. He stole one of the Christmas trees from the gingerbread house which is high up on the buffet in the living room.

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  8. When I found a log cabin gingerbread recipe in Sunset magazine in the mid-’70s I made that (with the plastic German figurines that got at Nuremburg Christmas Mart). So easy as they stacked with square spacers and not have to hold the roof in place (used as chimney and footpath steps too) till it dried. Nor was hard when sons wanted to destroy (yes they smashed with fists) and eat. Roof would be full of cinnamon Red Hots. Now my grandchildren make it and have the Hansel and Gretel and the witch to go with it. It was perfect living here in a mountain forest!
    Just saw I commented 2 years ago, o well. Miss making it but glad I did all those years

  9. Love it! We make our own Pfefferkuchenhäüser often. Its a fun tradition my mother shared with us. She always noted when the house went a little wonky that it is in fact a Hexenhaus (witch’s house) so need for perfection. Your house is charming!

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  11. Lovely gingerbread house. Do you know if Die Wahrheit über Hänsel und Gretel was ever printed in English? I sure hope so because I’m going to be really sad if I have to learn German just to read that book.

  12. Thank you for relating the fact and the fiction. I found your entry while searching on “Katherina Shrader”, and the supposed true story behind the fairy tale. The fiction is related as being actual fact in the book “Gingerbread Academy: Techniques of Hungarian Gingerbread”, but it sounded so hokey I had to look it up myself. I’m all for a good story, but I dislike misleading the public. Anyway, the truth is better than the fiction!

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