Gingerbread: The History
Simmons’s recipe is closely based on one in an English cookbook, Hannah Glasse’s Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (see our blog post on her chowder recipe). Indeed gingerbread had a long history in England before it crossed the Atlantic. The earliest gingerbreads were made with grated crumbs from the finest type of wheat bread, the manchet (see our blog post thereon), were sweetened with honey rather than sugar or molasses, and were often dyed red, violet, or yellow. In the course of the seventeenth century, flour began to replace the manchet crumbs and sugar or treacle (molasses to us Yanks) the honey, while the garish coloring gradually faded away.
Gingerbread was enjoyed on all levels of society. King Charles II was said to particularly favor treacle gingerbread. Here in New England, Samuel Sewall, one of the judges in the Salem Witch Trials (he later publicly repented of his participation in the guilty verdicts), and a man who moved throughout his life on the highest levels of Boston society, was served “Ginger-Bread” by the governor of Massachusetts one day in 1720. Just as people frequently do nowadays when they have dinner in a restaurant, Sewall took some of the governor’s gingerbread home with him. The next day he bestowed it as a token of his esteem, “wrapped in a clean sheet of Paper,” upon a widow woman he was courting. A highly prized piece of gingerbread indeed!
Farther down the social scale, gingerbread was popular among militia soldiers (and children) on colonial muster days. On his famous youthful walk from Boston to Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin nibbled on gingerbread.
Like many other foods, gingerbread didn’t take the form in which we’re familiar with it—a soft cake sweetened always with molasses—until the time of the colonial revival, in the decades around the turn of the twentieth century. A hundred years before that, Simmons offers five recipes for gingerbread. Four are relatively soft, though not as cakey as modern gingerbread; the one made with molasses is dense, almost hard. The one we’re telling you about in this post is a cookie-like “little cake” made with sugar. By the way, it was Simmons who first used the Dutch word “cookey” as the American name for English little cakes. But for some reason she didn’t apply the term to these small, circular gingerbreads, which in our eyes are clearly cookies.
If you’d like to know more about the culinary and cultural history of gingerbread in New England, you'll find several pages devoted to the subject in our earlier book, America’s Founding Food: The Story of New England Cooking.
We cut Simmons's recipe in half and converted her weight measurements to volume. Makes about 4 dozen small-to-medium cookies.
6 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon grated nutmeg
3 tablespoons ground ginger
1 cup sugar
2 sticks butter
2 large eggs
1½ teaspoons baking powder dissolved in
¼ cup heavy cream
How We Made It
We preheated the oven to 350º. We mixed together the flour, nutmeg, and ginger (we like to use a strong variety such as Frontier), and set aside.
Then we creamed the butter and sugar and mixed in the eggs.
In a measuring cup, we dissolved the baking powder in the cream.
We added the flour mixture to the creamed butter and sugar, then added in the cream/ baking powder and ran the standing mixer just until the dough came together.
You can also mix the dough by hand; do not overmix.
Using a small scoop, we formed the dough into little round cakes (i.e., cookies) and placed them about 2 inches apart on greased or Silpat-lined baking sheets. Then we popped them into the preheated oven
for fifteen minutes.
After fifteen minutes, when the cakes were slightly browned on the edges, we removed them from the oven and allowed them to cool for about 10 minutes. Then we served our rich, spicy gingerbread cakes together with one of the other little cakes that Simmons neglects to call “cookeys,” her caraway-flavored “Tumbles.” (We'll be blogging Tumbles soon.)
Ours wasn’t a high tea, certainly, but it certainly was high time for tea and “cookeys” at our house!
Amelia Simmons’s original recipe, with commentary, can be found in Northern Hospitality, p. 369.