Gingerbread dates at least as far back as the Middle Ages (500-1500’s) made with stale bread, spices and honey. Later during the Restoration Period (1660’s) molasses replaced the honey to make a thick, dense cookie, that was often cut-out and decorated (Toussaint-Samat, 30). Today Gingerbread is more of a dark, moist cake and Gingerbread Men a holiday cookie, while Ginger Snaps are a simple, yet delicious, crispy cookie. As America was being settled, English cookbooks laid the foundation for the birth of seventeenth century American cookery. A sixteenth century family recipe collection, Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeats is still being studied today as a link to the past. One version, transcribed by Karen Hess points out Washington’s recipe for “Pepper Cakes” in the Booke of Cookery section is actually a gingerbread recipe without pepper calling for 2 ounces of ginger instead; yet, in her Booke of Sweetmeats the recipe “To Make Ginger Bread”, does call for half a pound of ginger. Hess describes in detail some of the earliest recorded gingerbread recipes.
Cooking in open fireplaces was followed by wood burning ovens, in which one had to determine the proper wood and cooking times based on experience, and preheating the oven for an hour was sometime necessary. Although cookbooks at the time did not include cooking times or temperatures Amelia Simmons gives detailed instructions on properly cooking, in her book American Cookery, first published in 1796.
Plant ashes we’re used to create potash (potassium carbonate), when heated again to remove the ashy residue, this purer form turned pearly white, hence the name change from potash to pearl ash. Simmons used pearl ash in her recipe for gingerbread and introduced this new leavening agent to North America in her cookbook. Saleratus, a precursor to baking soda and more powerful than pearlash, is a term found in cookbooks used before baking soda became a common household ingredient. Other leavening agents used before baking soda and baking powder were on the market were eggs and yeast.
Simmons recipe for “Gingerbread Cakes, or butter and sugar Gingerbread” called for:
Three pounds of flour
a grated nutmeg
two ounces ginger
one pound sugar
three small spoons pearlash, dissolved in milk
one pound butter
After the ingredients were combined, it was to be kneaded stiff and shaped before baking for 15 minutes.
Hannah Glass, in 1805, published a new American edition to her popular English cookbook The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy.
Her recipe for “Ginger Tablets” calling for pounded ginger reads as such:
“Melt a pound of loaf-sugar with a little bit of butter over the fire, and put in an ounce of pounded ginger, keep it stirring till it begins to rise into a froth, then pour it into pewter plates and let it stand to cool. The platter must be rubbed with a little oil, and then put them in a china dish, and send them to table. Garnish with flowers of any kind” (243).
Pounded ginger is not the same as ground ginger found on grocery store shelves today. A knob of ginger would probably have been purchased dried, then pounded out and sifted, before it was measured to equal the amount needed for the recipe (www.davidwalbert.com ).
In 1824, Mary Randolph in her cookbook The Virginia Housewife Or, Methodical Cook, provided three gingerbread recipes: one without leavening, one with pearlash and one with frothy eggs.
Her recipe for “Plebeian Ginger Bread” calls for:
three large spoonfuls of pounded ginger
three quarts of flour
three tea-spoonsful of pearl-ash dissolved in a cup of water
half a pound of melted butter
a quart of molasses
The instructions are to mix, knead well, cut in shapes, and bake.
Mrs. Hills New Cook Book (1870) by A. P. Hill, includes over 1,000 numbered recipes with a dozen variations of gingerbread recipes for cakes and cookies. For her “Soft Ginger Cake” she suggests “…a teaspoonful of soda stirred well into the molasses, or two teaspoonfuls of yeast powders sprinkled into the batter…” (296). Another recipe, “Fruit Ginger Cake” calls for currants, raisins and citron along with the common spices of ginger, cinnamon and allspice. Cooking directions are brief or nonexistent with quips such as “bake in a pan” and “bake in a moderate or quick oven”.
My favorite recipe from Mrs. Hill:
753. Mrs. H.’s Soft Ginger Cake. – One cup of sugar, three of molasses, one of butter, one of sweet milk, three eggs, seven cups of flour, one teaspoonful of soda beaten well into the molasses; ginger and spice to taste.
What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking (1881) by Abby Fisher, includes 160 recipes and is the first African-American cookbook written by a former slave. She includes two gingerbread recipes: “Old-Time Ginger Cake” leavened with soda and eggs and her recipe for “Ginger Cookies” requires yeast powder (32-33). Teacups were used as measuring utensils and baking instructions were brief: “bake in oblong pans” and “bake as you would a biscuit”. She also uses a combination of butter and lard for her cookies.
The Dixie Cookbook (1883) by Estelle Woods Wilcox is a thick as a dictionary and more than a cookbook, Dixie is more like a cooking manual with lists of seasonal foods, table settings, manners, cooking utensils, sewing instructions and more home making guidelines. Her section on gingerbread reads:
If in making ginger-bread the dough becomes too stiff before it is
rolled out, set it before the fire. Snaps will not be crisp if made on
a rainy day. Ginger-bread and cakes require a moderate oven,
snaps a quick one. If cookies or snaps become moist in keeping,
put them in the oven and heat them for a few moments. Always
use New Orleans or Porto Rico molasses, and never syrups. Soda
is used to act on the ‘”spirit” of the molasses. In making the old-
fashioned, soft, square cakes of ginger-bread, put a portion of the
dough on a well-floured tin sheet, roll evenly to each side, trim off
evenly around the edges, and mark off in squares with a floured
knife or wheel cutter. In this way the dough may be softer than
where it is necessary to pick up to remove from board after rolling
and cutting. Always have the board well covered with flour before
rolling all kinds of soft ginger-breads, as they are liable to stick, and
should always be mixed as soft as they can be handled.
A sample of her recipes:
Ginger Cake with Spice.
Three eggs, one cup butter, two of flour, one of sugar, scant half
cup molasses, with half a tea-spoon soda stirred in it until it foams,
half a wine-glass of brandy, half a table-spoon of ginger, a half of
cinnamon, and a half of cloves and allspice mixed. Mix ingredi-
ents, leaving whites of eggs until last; next to last, molasses. Fruit
may be added.
Training Day Ginger-bread.
One gallon molasses or strained honey, one and a quarter pounds
butter, quarter pound soda stirred in a half tea-cup sweet milk, tea-
spoon alum dissolved in just enough water to cover it, flour to make
it stiff enough to roll out; put the molasses in a very large dish,
add the soda and butter melted, then all the other ingredients; mix
in the evening and set in a warm place to rise over night ; in the
morning knead it a long time like bread, roll into squares half an
inch thick, and bake in bread-pans in an oven heated about right
for bread. To make it glossy, rub over the top just before putting
it into the oven the following: One well-beaten egg the same amount
or a little more sweet cream, stirring cream and egg well together.
This ginger-bread will keep an unlimited time. The recipe is com-
plete without ginger, but two table-spoons may be used if preferred.
—Over fifty years old, and formerly used for general muster days.
Two cups molasses, one of lard, one of sugar, two-thirds cup sour
milk, table-spoon ginger, three tea-spoons soda stirred in the flour
and one in the milk, two eggs.— Miss Tina Lay
One egg, one cup sugar, one cup molasses, one table-spoon soda,
one of vinegar, one of ginger; roll thin and bake quickly.
Two cups molasses, one of lard, one table-spoon soda, one of
ginger, flour to roll stiff. — Miss Mary Gallagher
One gallon molasses, two pounds brown sugar, one quart melted
butter, half cup each ground cloves, mace, cinnamon and ginger,
one cup soda. — Mrs. Hattie Clemmons.
Then came Fannie Merritt Farmer who wrote The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book (1896), and laid the foundation for proper recipe writing. I inherited a copy of the 8th Edition (1948), which includes a chapter on gingerbreads and doughnuts. Farmer was the first to publish a cookbook with detailed cooking instructions for each recipe. She states: “Gingerbreads vary from the simplest eggless mixture made with hot water to a rich and buttery sour cream recipe, which makes no pretense of being inexpensive. Those recipes are included in her book along with a recipe for Soft Molasses Gingerbread (88). Rather than including butter or shortening in that recipe, she lets the baker make that decision. She goes on the explain the versatility of gingerbread: “Gingerbreads fit into the menu in many places. They may be served hot, with butter, as a breakfast or luncheon bread or with afternoon tea or coffee. As a desert, cut in squares and serve with…” sweetened whipped cream, a mixture of whipped cream and cream cheese or applesauce.
Joy’s Gingerbread Spread
4 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
2 tablespoons powdered sugar
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 – 1/2 cup whipped cream
Whip together on low speed with electric mixer.
Mrs. Seely’s Cook Book, A Manual of French and American Cookery (1902) by L. Seely, includes three gingerbread recipes: Ginger Snaps, to be baked in a quick oven; Soft Gingerbread without baking instructions; and more detailed mixing instructions with Gingerbread Sponge to be baked in a moderate oven for twenty minutes. The combination of lard and butter in her Soft Gingerbread along with soda and vinegar all contribute to the texture of the gingerbread. ‘Bicarbonate of soda’ is used in the sponge recipe as opposed to the simple term ‘soda’, used previously (350-351).
Dishes and Beverages of the Old South (1913) by Martha McCulloch-Williams includes three gingerbread recipes: (153-155)
Plain Soft Gingerbread: Dissolve a desert spoonful of soda in a cup of
boiling water, add to it a cup of rich molasses, along with three
tablespoonfuls of melted butter. Mix well through two and and one half
cups sifted flour, add ground ginger and allspice to taste, and bake in a
Mammy’s Ginger Cakes: Beat four eggs very light with a good pinch of
salt and a cup of coffee sugar. Add three cups of rich molasses, and a
cup of boiling water with two teaspoonfuls soda dissolved in it. Mix
well in two tablespoonfuls pounded ginger. Sift five pints of flour with
a teaspoonful of salt, rub into it lightly two cups sweet lard, then add
the molasses mixture and knead to a firm dough, adding more flour if
needed or, if too stiff, a little sweet milk. Roll out half an inch
thick, cut into big squares, bake in a quick oven, and brush over the
tops while blazing hot a little butter, molasses and boiling water. Let
stand in a warm place until dry. These might properly be called First
Monday Ginger Cakes, since our Mammy made them to sell upon that day to
the crowds which came to court, thereby turning many an honest fip or
picayune. (fip or picayune are coins)
Family Gingerbread: Cup and a half dark molasses, half cup sugar,
small cup melted lard, cup boiling water with teaspoonful soda dissolved
in it, pinch of salt, sifted flour enough to make rather stiffer than
pound cake batter. Spices to taste–ginger, allspice, nutmeg, all in
powder, is a good mixture. Bake rather quickly.
The Revised Rumford Complete Cook Book (1939), by the Rumford Company Department of Home Economics, provides recipes for: Dark Gingerbread, Soft Gingerbread and Fruit Gingerbread, with raisins and lemon or orange (page 136-137). Once again, cooking times are not consistently given with each recipe.
Southern Cooking (1941), by S. R. Dull, explains in part in the forward of her book why she wrote it: “The interest taken in my weekly page, in the magazine section of the Atlanta Journal, which I edited for twenty years, convinced me of the need for an authoritative source of information on the preparation of foodstuffs “the Southern way”, and as a consequence “Southern Cooking” was born in 1928.” She includes recipes for Ginger Snaps, Ginger Cakes, and Ginger Bread, including one called “1850 Ginger Cakes” using syrup and lard ( 266-267). She too gives the option of butter or lard, also combines the butter and lard, then goes on the say peanut butter or bacon drippings can be used as a substitution. One recipe list the ingredients with the only instructions, “Bake in Moderate oven.”
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings in Cross Creek Cookery (1942) provides one recipe for Ginger Snaps (163) one recipe for Evadne’s Gingerbread (168) and without much comment, except to say the gingerbread “bakes into the most delicate and delicious gingerbread I have ever eaten” and suggests serving it with unsweetened whipped cream. When someone made this statement about Rawlings: “She looks like a woman who is a good cook and enjoys her own cooking”, Rawlings replied “the cause is undoubtedly southern hot breads”(18). Since she wrote the cookbook while living at Cross Creek, I deconstructed her recipe and decided to give it a try. Rawlings followed her own format in recipe writing including extra ingredients included with the instructions along with personal comments. This is how I interpreted her gingerbread recipe.
Cross Creek Gingerbread
Beat the following ingredients together in a large bowl , beating well, then set aside:
1 cup sugar
1 cup molasses
1 teaspoon powdered cloves
1 teaspoon powdered ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup corn oil (I like using corn oil)
In a small dish stir and dissolve, then add to above mixture:
2 teaspoons soda
2 tablespoons hot water
Sift in and beat well:
2 cups flour
Quickly beat in:
1 cup boiling water
Pour the very thin batter into greased and floured loaf pan and bake 1 hour at 350 degrees.
I had to increase Rawlings cooking time but that might have been due to using a loaf pan rather than a flatter pan, the gingerbread was good especially when topped with a mixture of cream cheese and whipped cream.
My mother gave me her copy of the new and revised 1953 The American Woman’s Cook Book, when she bought a new Better Homes and Garden Cookbook. Two options for making Gingerbread (498) from the American Woman’s Cook Book are given. Recipe No. 1 includes sour milk or buttermilk in place of water along with egg, sugar, baking powder and cinnamon, along with the common ingredients found in recipe No. 2: flour, ginger, baking soda, salt, shortening and molasses.