Mid-19th century diets changed little from the Colonial era, and many foods were so basic as to hardly need a recipe for their preparation. They were prepared in a simple straightforward manner by the average housewife or servant.
Gingerbread is one of those enduring favorites. It was made in thin crispy forms resembling cookies and referred to as “snaps” and it was made in a cake or bread-like form which was very similar in flavor, but much lighter in texture. The method of preparation was based to some extent on the preferences of the family eating it, but more likely on the preferences of the women baking it.
John Evelyn included Ginger Bread in his manuscript of cookery receipts penned in the 1640’s. His receipt is typical in that it is difficult to tell from the title whether it is the cookie-like creation, or flavored sweet bread. Close inspection of the instructions reveals it to be the former and similar to what would evolve into the ginger-snap.
Take 2 pound of the best flower and 3 quarters of a p[ound] of sweet butter break it small into the flower then put in a pound and halfe of sugar finely beat and two ounces of Ginger beat and sifted the yolks of 4 Eggs the whites of 2, 3, or 4 spoonfulls of sack and as much Ale yest as will make it into a pretty stiffe past if you have no yest it dos as well with eggs only, 7 or 8 halfe the whites will wett the ingredients work into the past a qr. Of a p[ound] of greene citron as much candyed Orenge cut in small bitts then role it into long roles or round Cakes as you please just as they are going into the Oven wash them over with a feather dipt in the yolk of an egge beaten, so bake them.
William Penn’s wife, Gulielma kept a Cookery book while living with her husband in Pennsylvania which was transcribed in 1702. It contains the following recipe for Ginger Bread.
Take 3 pound of treckell * and as much flouer as it will need, mingle with the flouer a ¼ of a pound of beaten ginger, and a qr of Coraway Coriander and Anis seeds, a Littell brused and 3 grated nutmegs ½ a pound of sugar, then make it into a stife past, and beat it with a Rouling pinn, to make it Lite, it must bee baked in tinn pans which must bee a Littell buttered, as sone as thee take it out of the oven just dip it in to scalding hot water, and put it into the oven againe, and Lett it, If thee hast any oring or Lemon peele slice sum very thin in to the treckell 3 or 4 days before thou makest the ginger breed.
Mrs. Penn’s receipt will produce a cookie-like product from the addition of flour sufficient to roll it out to a stiff paste. Like Evelyn’s product it is felt best when flavored with orange or lemon peel, but unlike Evelyn’s Mrs. Penn’s is flavored with treacle, also known as molasses, which gives gingerbread the characteristic flavor we recognize today. Mrs. Penn’s spelling still has the old English appearance, but has become more in line with current standards.
In addition to the ginger, her product is also flavored with ground caraway, coriander, and anise seeds which may have been, to some extent, a personal preference, and not necessarily indicative of the average recipe of that era.
In 1770, Harriott Horry set about keeping a receipt book from her home on a South Carolina low country plantation which is typical of books from that era in its contents. She offers the following recipe for Very Good Ginger Bread.
Take one quart Molasses, 3 quarts Flour, a large spoonful of Butter, 2 ozs. Ginger and 2 ozs. China Orange Peel dried and finely powder’d. 4 Eggs whites and Yolks-half a pound of Sugar and some Allspice. Mix all these ingredients well together with 2 or 3 spoonfulls of good yeast. Work it up well and role it out and bake it on tin, first Buttering the sheets. You may add 2 ozs. Carraway seed finely powder’d.
Mrs. Horry’s receipt is similar to Evelyn’s in that she still uses candied orange peel to flavor the gingerbread, and it still uses yeast for leavening along with the eggs. Her recipe, like Mrs. Penn’s, is flavored with both ginger and allspice, and she offers the option of additional flavoring with ground caraway seeds. Her product remains cookie-like in texture, and, like Mrs. Penn’s, benefits from the characteristic flavor of molasses.
In 1805, a group of ladies in Deerfield, Mass produced a small book of cookery receipts which was reprinted and sold as a fund-raising project in 1897. Because it was compiled by more than one author it reflects the tastes of all those who contributed, and by the number of recipes for gingerbread it is obvious this was a standard in the kitchen of each of the ladies involved with the project.
The gingerbread recipes include Mollie Saunder’s Upper Shelf Gingerbread, Sugar Gingerbread, Cream Gingerbread, Great Grandmother’s Gingerbread, Soft Gingerbread, Buttermilk Gingerbread, and Ginger Snaps.
Between the date of Mrs. Horry’s book and this one we see the inclusion of the familiar term ginger-snap. Each of the above recipes instructs adding flour until stiff and rolling except for Cream Gingerbread and Soft Gingerbread. From the amounts of liquid and flour used in these two recipes we see that they were intended to be a softer more cake-like product.
The 1841 Good Housekeeper written by Sarah J. Hale contains four recipes for what she terms hard and soft gingerbreads. For the hard version she instructs working it well, rolling out, and baking on flat pans, and for the soft version she instructs baking in a quick oven half an hour. In comparing the amount of liquid to dry ingredients it is apparent the latter was a cake-like product. The hard version contains no molasses, but the soft version does.
Hard Gingerbread – Rub half a pound of butter into a pound of flour; then rub in half a pound of sugar, two table-spoonfuls of ginger, and a spoonful of rose water; work it well; roll out, and bake in flat pans in a moderate oven. It will take about half an hour to bake. This gingerbread will keep good some time.
The 1858 Inquire Within also contained both hard and soft versions of gingerbread.
Gingerbread Snaps. One pound of flour, half a pound of treacle, half a pound of sugar, quarter of a pound of butter, half an ounce of best prepared ginger, sixteen drops of essence of lemon, potash the size of a nut, dissolved in a table-spoonful of hot water.
To Make Gingerbread Cake. Take one pound and a half of treacle, one and a half ounces of ground ginger, half an ounce of caraway seeds, two ounces of allspice, four ounces of orange peel, shred fine; half a pound of sweet butter, six ounces blanched almonds, one pound honey, and one and a half ounces carbonate of soda, with as much fine flour as makes a dough of moderate consistence. Directions for Baking it: Make a pit in five pounds flour, then pour in the treacle, and all the other ingredients creaming the butter; then mix them all together into a dough. Work it well, then put in three quarters of an ounce tartaric acid, and put the dough into a buttered pan and bake for two hours in a cool oven. To know when it is ready, dip a fork into it, and if it comes out sticky put it in the oven again; if not, it is ready.
By this time the directions have evolved in style to at least the precursor of what we recognize in today’s cookbooks. The product is flavored with the characteristic molasses and ginger, and raised with the equivalent of today’s baking powder – potash and carbonate of soda.
Still no specific temperature or time table is given for the baking because this varied from kitchen to kitchen and with the peculiar circumstances pertinent to any given day of preparation – humidity, outdoor temperature, quality and temperature of flour, freshness of the eggs, type of wood used in the fire, etc. Food preparation through the end of the century depended more on the skill of the cook than in the recording of specific directions because none of these factors were as of yet controllable.
For the Civil War soldier, welcome was the box from home containing the almost indestructible ginger snaps. Some thought the spices in the cakes discouraged insects, and since the ginger-snaps just became harder as they aged, they kept well for extended periods of time.
The 1879 recipe for Sponge Ginger-Bread from Buckeye Cookery and Practical Housekeeping has the advantage of more detailed instructions in mixing the batter, and more reliable results using baking soda rather than earlier forms of leavening. The ingredients have evolved into the standards we expect in modern recipes.
One cup sour milk, one of Orleans molasses, a half cup butter, two eggs, one teaspoon soda, one table-spoon ginger, flour to make as thick as pound-cake; put butter, molasses and ginger together, make them quite warm, add the milk, flour, eggs and soda, and bake as soon as possible.
The 1900 Picayune’s Creole Cookbook offers cake-like Ginger Bread which is risen using soda and baking powder, sweetened with molasses, and flavored with ginger and cinnamon. The instructions say to pour the batter into well-greased shallow tins and use a broom straw to test for doneness when baked approximately 40 minutes.
By 1923 another milestone has passed in gingerbread making – the practice of adding coffee to gingerbread batter is evidenced in one of the recipes found in Holland’s Cook Book.
Coffee Gingerbread. Beat together ½ cupful butter, 1 cupful molasses, 1 egg, 1 teaspoonful ginger, 1 teaspoonful cinnamon and ½ teaspoonful cloves. Mix and add 1 cupful strong coffee and 2 ½ cupfuls flour sifted with a teaspoonful soda.
For further reading see Victoria’s Home Companion; Or, The Whole Art of Cooking by Victoria Rumble. The book may be ordered from the blog. Blissful Meals & Happy Holidays.