A Week of Gingerbread

Get ready for a week dedicated to gingerbread! Yes, you heard me right, a whole week on gingerbread! Okay, okay, I’ll explain. My friend and I entered a gingerbread contest…and, well, since it’s “historically” related (I’m not kidding you!) we thought over our little hiatus that posting pictures of our gingerbread house would be fun…and then it just morphed from one (very long) post into a week long series of posts. Some fun historical facts, a history lesson, and pictures of our historical gingerbread house!

Now, before I get to the pictures (yes, yes, go ahead and groan) I have to share a little bit of gingerbread history and an old-fashioned gingerbread recipe with you (this is a historical blog after all!). Without further ado…

Why do we call it gingerbread?

“The cakelike consistency of gingerbread bears little resemblance to bread, so it comes as no surprise that gingerbread has no etymological connection with bread. It was originally, in the thirteenth century, gingerbras, a word borrowed from Old French which meant ‘preserved ginger’. But by the mid-fourteenth century, -bread had begun to replace -bras, and it was only a matter of time before sense followed form. One of the earliest known recipes for it, in the early fifteenth-century cookery book Good Cookery, directs that it be made with breadcrumbs boiled in honey with ginger and other spices. This is the lineal ancestor of the modern cakelike gingerbread in which treacle has replaced honey.”
—An A-Z of Food & Drink, John Ayto [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 2002 (p. 142)

About gingerbread shapes:

“The first gingerbread man is credited to the court of Queen Elizabeth I, who favored important visitors…with charming gingerbread likenesses of themselves…After the Grimm Brothers’ tale of Hansel and Gretel described a house “made of bread,” with a roof of cake and windows of barley, German bakeries began offering elaborate gingerbread houses with icing snow on the roofs, along with edible gingerbread Christmas cards and finely detailed molded cookies. Tinsmiths fashioned cookie cutters into all imaginable forms, and every woman wanted one shape that was different from anybody else’s…Most of the cookies that hung on nineteenth-century Christmas trees were at least half an inch thick and cut into animal shapes or gingerbread men…”
—“Gingerbread,” Karen S. Edwards & Sharon Antle, Americana [magazine], December 1988 (p. 49+)

A little bit of research through my 19th century recipe book collection also proved that gingerbread was eaten in America in the 1800s and that there were quite a few variations. I found recipes for Sponge Gingerbread, Soft Gingerbread, Ginger-nut Bread, Baker’s Gingerbread, Lafayette Gingerbread, and the following recipe for Common Gingerbread.

Common Gingerbread

A pint of molasses.
One pound of fresh butter
Three pounds of flour, sifted
A pint of milk
A small tea-spoonful of pearl-ash or less
A tea-cup full of ginger or more if it is not strong.

Cut the butter into the flour. Add the ginger. Having dissolved the pearl-ash in a little vinegar, stir it with the milk and molasses alternately into the other ingredients. Stir it very hard for a long time, till it is quite light. Knead it a little.

Put some flour on your paste-board, take out small portions of the dough, and make it with your hand into long rolls. Then curl up the rolls into round cakes, or twist two rolls together, or lay them in straight lengths or sticks side by side, and touching each other. Put them carefully into buttered pans, and bake them in a moderate oven, not hot enough to burn them. If they should get scorched, scrape off with a knife, or grater, all the burnt parts, before you put the cakes away.

You can, if you choose, cut out the dough with tins, in the shape of hearts, circles, ovals, etc. or you may bake it all in one, and cut it in squares when cold.

If the mixture appears to be too thin, add, gradually, a little more sifted flour.

From Seventy-five Receipts for Pastry Cakes, by Miss Leslie of Philadelphia

NOTE: Pearl-ash is an impure form of potassium carbonate. I found this bit of interesting info: “Pearl-Ash is a kind of fixed alkaline salt, prepared in various parts of Europe, and also in America, by melting and extracting the salts from the ashes of burnt vegetables.”


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