December 12, 2014 by
More than once when I’ve made gingerbread, my husband will come home and simply say, “It smells like Fall in here.” I take that as a compliment.
Gingerbread is a confectionary that has seemingly always been associated with Autumn and the Holidays. In Medieval England, the term gingerbread simply meant ‘preserved ginger’. The name wasn’t for the desserts we’re familiar with until the 15th century.
According to Rhonda Massingham Hart’s Making Gingerbread Houses, the first known recipe for gingerbread came from Greece in 2400 BC. Chinese recipes were developed during the 10th century and by the late Middle Ages, Europeans had their own version of gingerbread. The hard cookies, sometimes gilded with gold leaf and shaped like animals, kings and queens, were a staple at Medieval fairs in England, France, Holland and Germany. Queen Elizabeth I is credited with the idea of decorating the cookies in this fashion, after she had some made to resemble the dignitaries visiting her court. Over time some of these festivals came to be known as Gingerbread Fairs, and the gingerbread cookies served there were known as ‘fairings.’ The shapes of the gingerbread changed with the season, including flowers in the spring and birds in the fall. Elaborately decorated gingerbread became synonymous with all things fancy and elegant in England. The gold leaf that was often used to decorate gingerbread cookies led to the popular expression ‘to take the gilt off of gingerbread.’ The carved, white architectural details found on many colonial American seaside homes is sometimes referred to as ‘gingerbread work’.
Gingerbread houses originated in Germany during the 16th century. The elaborate cookie-walled houses, decorated with foil in addition to gold leaf, became associated with Christmas tradition. Their popularity rose when the Brothers Grimm wrote the story of Hansel and Gretel, in which the main characters stumble upon a house made entirely of treats deep in the forest. It is unclear whether or not gingerbread houses were a result of the popular fairy tale, or vice versa.
Gingerbread arrived in the New World with English colonists. The cookies were sometimes used to sway Virginia voters to favor one candidate over another. The first American cookbook, American Cookery by Amelia Simmons, has recipes for three types of gingerbread including the soft variety baked in loaves:
Soft gingerbread to be baked in pans.
No. 2. Rub three pounds of sugar, two pounds of butter, into four pounds of flour, add 20 eggs, 4 ounces ginger, 4 spoons rosewater, bake as No. 1.
This softer version of gingerbread was more common in America. George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, served her recipe for gingerbread to the Marquis de Lafayette when he visited her Fredericksburg, Virginia home. Since then it was known as Gingerbread Lafayette. The confection was passed down through generations of Washingtons.
(Source: History of Gingerbread, The History Kitchen, Tori Avey)
A main ingredient in gingerbread is molasses. It is basically the leftovers of the sugar making process after the sugar crystals have been removed during boiling.
There are several different types of molasses comercially available: Light Molasses, Dark Molasses, Blackstrap Molasses, Sulphured Molasses, and Unsulphured Molasses.
Grandma’s is a good, consistent brand of molasses that’s readily available at just about every grocery. It’s an unsulphured light molasses. Plus, the company sponsors an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee. I’m all about that.
You may be asking yourself, what’s the difference? Or, you may not be. But, I’m going to tell you anyway.
Light Molasses: This comes from the first boiling of the sugarcane is generally the sweetest of the molasses. it is also known as “Barbados”, “Sweet”, “Mild”, or “First” molasses. This molasses is generally used in baking, marinades, rubs, and sauces
Dark Molasses: This comes from the second boiling and after more sugar is extracted. It is generally thicker and less sweet. it can also be called “Full” or “Second” molasses. It can be used interchangeably with light molasses for most uses. It is most commonly used in baking.
Blackstrap Molasses: This comes from the third boiling and is very thick and dark in color. It has the highest mineral content because of its concentration. While it can be found in grocery stores, it is most commonly found in health food stores. Some people will use blackstrap molasses (especially vegans) as a health food and supplement to their diets because it contains iron, niacin, and B6, among other minerals that wouldn’t necessarily be in or in very low levels in a vegan diet.
Sulphured and Unsulphured Molasses: Sulphur Dioxide (SO2) is sometimes added to molasses as a preservative because molasses can ferment and spoil. It does change the flavor of the molasses making it less sweet. Unsulphured is preferred because it is sweeter and is closer to the original molasses flavor. And, because, well, it doesn’t have sulphur.
(Source: Healthy Eating, SF Gate)
Also, molasses can be distilled to make rum. FYI.
My inspiration for this recipe came from an old recipe found in a 1965 edition of the Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book that I received from my mother-in-law not long after I married. As I was flipping through the book, it reminded me of the book my mother had as I was growing up. I believe hers was the same edition. (She still has it. I think it’s now held together with rubber bands.) I always remember the notes and McCall’s Cooking School recipes she would save in her book.
The BHG Cookbook my mother-in-law gave me. It’s a souvenir edition of the 1965 printing celebrating 10 Million copies sold.
My 2nd. edition, 1935 printing of the BHG Cookbook. I don’t think it’s ever been used.
BHG 1950 printing. This is about the time the now familiar red-and-white cover was first used. I bought this off Ebay. It was obviously loved.
Mom said to me as recently as Thanksgiving that the gingerbread recipe in the BHG book is a great recipe. In fact, she made it for my sisters and I often when we were kids.
Here is the ingredient list for the original recipe:
1/2 c. shortening
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 c. light molasses
1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
3/4 tsp. salt
3/4 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 c. boiling water
(from Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book, 1965 printing)
I will say, though, while I love the original recipe, I have changed it up a little:
* I’ve omitted the cinnamon and added quadruple the ginger. It’s a flavor preference.
*I’ve replaced the white sugar with either dark brown or maple sugar. Again, it’s a flavor preference. The new sugars aren’t as sweet as white sugar.
*I’m using butter flavored shortening. Because I can.
Now, of course, you can do whatever you like. Add or subtract as you see fit. Other sweet spices (i.e. cinnamon, allspice, cloves, nutmeg, anise) will work well in this recipe, too. However, you may want to be somewhat conservative on the amount of extra spice you use. You’re making gingerbread, not a spice cake. Some people will also add a small amount of finely chopped candied ginger to the recipe as well.
The maple sugar. Like most real maple products, it is not inexpensive. But, if you do have some, use it.
Ground Ginger, Salt, Baking Soda
1/2 c. shortening
1/2 c. dark brown or maple sugar
1/2 c. molasses
1 1/2 c. flour
3/4 tsp. salt
3/4 tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. ground ginger
1/2 c. boiling water
1. Preheat your oven to 350F. Spray or butter & flour a 9″ x 9″ x 2″ baking dish. Set aside.
2. Sift together the flour, salt, baking soda, and ginger. Set aside.
My mom’s old sifter that she gifted to me.
Sifted. You can, of course, use a small strainer to sift as well.
3. With either a hand mixer and medium bowl, or a stand mixer, beat the shortening on medium speed until it is softened.
The softened shortening. It helps the process if you have the shortening at room temperature.
4. Lower the speed to low (otherwise you’ll end up with a mess) and gradually add the sugar. Once the sugar is incorporated with the shortening, turn the speed back up to medium and continue beating until the mixture is light and fluffy.
A fluffy shortening and sugar mix. This process helps to incorporate air into the shortening and make sure the sugar will mix into the rest of the batter thoroughly and not lump up.
5. Turn the heat back down to low and add the egg and molasses. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and be sure the ingredients are mixed thoroughly.
I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: always break your eggs into a separate bowl or cup before adding to the rest of your ingredients. Otherwise, you may be full of regret.
Egg and molasses mixed in.
6. Keeping the speed on low, alternately add the dry ingredients and the boiling water. (I generally begin with 1/4 c. of the boiling water, half of the dry ingredients, the other 1/4 c. water, the other half of the dry ingredients.) By adding the ingredient this way, along with scraping down the sides of the bowl, you are ensuring even mixing as well as jump-starting the baking soda.
After adding the first 1/4 cup water. I know it looks strange, but, trust me, it’s fine.
After adding the first half of the dry ingredients.
7. Pour the batter into your prepared baking dish and place in the center of the oven.
Ready for the oven.
Bake for 35 – 40 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean when you insert it into the cake.
So, as soon as I took this photo, Husband took the piece off the top.