According to Wikipedia, some breads were already prepared with honey in ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt. But the Pain d'épices recipe used nowadays in France was borrowed from China in the Middle Age.
Pains d'épices come in all shapes and forms and there are many variants to the recipe: use of different spices, different types of honey, nuts (usually walnuts or almonds), citrus peels (orange), glazing... Regions and cities like Alsace, Reims, Dijon, have renown specialties but pain d'épices is also widely baked at home.
The bread on these pictures was inspired by a recipe in Bahadourian's excellent cookbook "Epices et Aromates". Mr. Bahadourian is the owner of a famous spice shop (épicerie fine) in Lyon, where many of the Lyon region top chefs get their spices and herbs. The book has a first section on spices themselves: where they are from and how to use them. There are several very interesting chapters (for spices, herbs, and blends like curry). The second part of the book is a selection of classic, well seasoned recipes from all over the world (from Indian samosas to Provence bouillabaisse, Hungarian goulash, Sicilian preserved pears and many more). There's even a bonus section with more elaborated recipes by Lyon chefs. It's a relatively small book but I love it. It's full of really useful tips.
The recipe in the book was for a bread loaf but I made my pain d'épices flat instead, to mimic Swiss Laeckerli's shape (my sister Emilie studies in Lausanne and made me discover these sooooo delicious almond cookies). Here's what I used:
- 1 pound (or 500g) all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 pound (or 500g) orange blossom honey from California
- 1 cup milk
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon anise seeds
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspon ground ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
- 1 clove
- zest (peel) of 1 organic orange (I harvested an orange in my backyard one minute before using it: can it get any fresher?)
The recipe is very simple. It's best to bake the bread a day or two in advance and store it in an air-tight container. Here's what I did:
- Sift the flour in a large bowl and mix with the baking soda.
- In a pot, heat the honey, milk and salt until they are almost boiling.
- Pour the hot honey on the flour and incoporate. You could use a bread machine here... I don't have one so I had a nice workout, using a wooden spoon!
- Grind the spices. Chop the orange peel thinly. Incorporate them to the dough.
- Cover a cookie sheet with parchment paper and spread the dough on it. The parchment paper will save you a lot of time and energy... Pain d'épices is pretty sticky.
- Let the dough cool down for at least one hour before baking.
- Bake at 300F (150C) for about 40 minutes, until the top gets a nice golden color.
- Once the bread is cool, cut in rectangles of about 1.5"x2".