If the archives of the Plymouth Antiquarian Society are representative, gingerbread had to have been the most-swapped recipe in 19th-century America. Women who had a full array of gingerbreads (hard, soft, sugar, etc.) in their arsenals still took time to jot down the gingerbreads of others. On occasion, this profusion of scribbling draws the food historian into the kitchens of neighbors and kin with leads like “Mrs. Baker’s” or “Cousin Mollie’s”. Or evidence reveals that the recipe has been copied from a friend’s new cookbook (“Mrs. Lincoln” is noted as if she lived across the street, just as my mother wrote “Julia” in the corner of the recipe card as she furiously jotted down Chicken Marengo from the TV back in 1965.)
The reduplication of recipes also plants the suspicion that some of those gingerbreads just sat unbaked in the manuscripts. Reinforcing this view are occasional annotations like “Jamie’s kind” and “Walter’s kind”; with so many gingerbreads, how else to remember which son favored which recipe? And why try new versions when it is already known which “kind” is sure to please?
This gingerbread comes from the cutest little red-leather-bound manuscript, which Sophronia “Frona” Spooner kept from around 1860 into the 20th century. The recipe’s apparent originator, a Mrs. Goodwin, seems to have proffered it around 1870. Frona overhauled it to her (or at least her son Walter’s) liking, and it is that version I offer below.
Mrs. Goodwin’s Oringinal Gingerbread recipe from the late 1800’s
3 cups molasses.
1 cup of lard
2 large spoonfuls of ginger
2 teaspoons of soda
1 cup of warm water
*with 1 cup milk & two eggs the above is much better and is ‘Walter’s kind’.
Many of you probably eschew lard in cakes. What was once commonplace is now so unheard of that most vegetarians don’t think to inquire whether or not a dessert is derived from meat. One imagines that 19th-century vegetarians (for there was a strong movement beginning in the 1830s) had to ask about every scrap that might pass their lips, so ubiquitous were animal fats in every branch of cookery. Anyway, if you’re a meat eater who draws the line at commercially-packaged meats, you might enjoy taking matters into your own hands and rendering some lard from a local farm (it will improve your pastry, your flour tortillas, your refried beans, etc., as well as make an authentic gingerbread). Just say no to lard? Butter is a fine substitute, and will make what would be called in the period, “a daintier cake”; either way, the recipe makes a nice, very moist, classic gingerbread cake. I’ve halved the original to make one loaf cake.
How to do it today:
- 2½ cups (12 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon (or more, if you’re a fiend like me) ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 egg
- 1½ cups molasses
- ½ cup milk
- ½ cup hot tap water
- ½ cup (4 ounces) lard or butter, melted and cooled a bit
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. Line the bottom of a standard loaf pan (about 9”x5”) with waxed paper. Grease and flour the pan.
3. Whisk together the flour, ginger, and baking soda.
4. In a mixing bowl, beat the egg. Mix in the molasses, milk, and water, beating well. Add the dry ingredients and stir until just combined.
5. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 60-70 minutes, or until a skewer poked into the middle of the cake emerges clean.
6. Allow to rest on a cooling rack 10 to 15 minutes before running a knife around the edge and unmolding. Finish cooling upright on the rack.
By Paula Marcoux