Early American gingerbread cakes

In researching 19th-century American cooking I started with gingerbread — why, exactly, is a long story — and in researching gingerbread I started with Amelia Simmons’ 1796 American Cookery. This was the first cookbook written by an American author and published in America, and although nearly all of the culinary influence is (unsurprisingly) English, there are American touches, such as recipes for cornbread and cranberries.

One American influence on Simmons’ cooking is the use of a chemical leavener, pearlash, for baking. Pearlash, potassium carbonate, is an industrially refined form of potash, which you get by boiling down wood ashes. Why would anybody think to put that in bread? Some writers have suggested that bakers in many cultures, including some American Indians, had traditionally lightened their bread by adding wood ashes to it. (Update, 2011: I’m not entirely convinced of this. It’s complicated; I’ll explore it further in the book.) Ash, like modern baking soda, is alkaline and reacts with acid in the dough to make carbon dioxide bubbles, which leaven the bread. Still, it tastes like ash, and Europeans for the most part found the practice disgusting. Industrially refined wood ash, apparently, was a different story. Pearlash was developed for glassmaking in the 1740s, but not long afterwards bakers figured out that adding it to unyeasted doughs would make their breads and cakes lighter.

As far as I know, pearlash didn’t show up in English cookbooks until sometime in the early nineteenth century. American cooks, though, had embraced it by the 1790s. Simmons called for it in several recipes, and cookbooks weren’t cheap and common enough then that authors could call for exotic ingredients. Pearlash was manufactured in America, since that’s where the forests were, though it was being shipped to England before the Revolution. Maybe Americans, then as now, were quicker than Europeans to chase the latest technological advance. Or maybe English cookbook authors were more genteel than Amelia Simmons, a self-described orphan who may well have been a house-servant trying to make good.

Whatever the reason, Simmons took a basically English tea cake and improved it with an industrial food additive. Here’s an English version from the 1780s:

Take three pounds of flour, one pound of sugar, one pound of butter rubbed in very fine, two ounces of ginger beat fine, a large nutmeg grated; then take a pound of treacle, a quarter of a pint of cream, make them warm together, and make make up the bread stiff; roll it out, and make it up into thin cakes, cut them out with a tea-cup, or small glass; or roll them round like nuts, and bake them on tin-plates in a slack oven. Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cooquery (London, 1788), pp. 281–282.

Now here’s Amelia Simmons’ recipe for “Gingerbread Cakes, or butter and sugar Gingerbread” from a decade later:

Three pounds of flour, a grated nutmeg, two ounces ginger, one pound sugar, three small spoons pearl ash dissolved in cream, one pound butter, four eggs, knead it stiff, shape it to your fancy, bake 15 minutes. American Cookery, p. 36.

The quantities of flour, butter, sugar, and spices are identical — suggesting it’s possible that Simmons cribbed them directly from Glasse’s book, which had made the rounds in the former colonies. She skipped the treacle, which never really caught on here, and uses eggs to make up the liquid and add loft. And then there’s the pearlash. The result is a lighter, less dense cake than the English version, thanks to an early adopter of baking technology.

Better living through chemistry, indeed.

Adapting 18th-century gingerbread

gingerbread cakes

My goal here was to make something that Amelia Simmons would have recognized, not necessarily to replicate the recipe exactly. Her flour would have been stone-ground and not very white, so I used a 60-40 blend of whole wheat and all-purpose, which was a guess. White sugar was terribly expensive in 1796, and recipes that want it call for it by name; plain old daily sugar would have been light brown, unrefined, similar to our Turbinado. I’ve used light brown, because Turbinado is too expensive to bake with. I added salt because her butter would have been salted for preservation and because I thought the recipe needed it. And I cut back the ginger somewhat, though I still used quite a lot (see my earlier post on that topic).

Finally there’s the matter of leavening. I used baking soda instead of pearlash, though not quite one-to-one. In Simmons’ recipe, the alkaline pearlash doesn’t have much acid to react with — unless the cream was expected to have soured. Either she meant lightly soured cream or she hadn’t figured out how to use pearlash properly. I gave her the benefit of the doubt and used buttermilk — at least she intended the dough to rise in the oven. I found I needed 3/4 cup of buttermilk to make a dough, and since 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda will cancel the acid in 1 cup of buttermilk, I rounded up to a half teaspoon of soda.

Got all that? No? Well, just make the gingerbread cakes, then. They’re really quite good — lightly sweet, a little nutty, a bit denser than a biscuit. And yes, spicy: You really do want two tablespoons of ground ginger, in part to cut through the whole wheat; the result is warming but not at all off-putting.

Although the cakes are best when they come out of the oven, they’ll keep for a day or two and can be refreshed by a few minutes in a toaster oven. They make a good substitute for any sort of quickbread you might serve with dinner, assuming dinner is a hearty affair and not, say, sole meuniere. They’re good for breakfast, and since they’re whole-grain you can feel you’re doing something healthy by eating them. Top them with good apple butter, the kind made from nothing but apples, or with lemon curd. For dessert, use them as a base for strawberry shortcake.

Recipe: Early American gingerbread cakes

Makes about 12 roughly biscuit-sized cakes.

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
  • 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 tablespoons ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon lightly packed freshly grated nutmeg, or 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 pound butter
  • 1 egg
  • 3/4 cup buttermilk

Preparation

  1. In a large bowl, whisk together the flours, brown sugar, salt, and baking soda.
  2. Cut the butter into small pieces and add it to the flour mixture. Pinch the pieces of butter between your fingers to break them up; keep at this until the mixture looks crumbly and there are no large pieces of butter left. (You could do this by pulsing it in a food processor, but mine isn’t big enough.)
  3. Stir in the egg. Add about 2/3 cup of the buttermilk and stir in, then add enough of the rest gradually until the mixture will come together as a dough.
  4. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead for a minute or two until the dough is smooth. (It will still be a little tacky.)
  5. Pat the dough out with your fingers about 1/4-inch thick and cut into shapes — rounds with a biscuit cutter, or simply cut squares or triangles with a knife. (Don’t use a glass to cut rounds, or you’ll compress the edges of the cakes and they won’t rise properly.)
  6. Place the cakes on a greased baking sheet and bake at 350°F for 15 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool on racks.

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2 Responses to Early American gingerbread cakes

  1. Christine says:

    Fascinating! I’ve always wondered how “chemical” leavening got started. Are the gingerbread cakes crumbly like a biscuit or more like a dense muffin?

  2. David says:

    Christine, they are more like a muffin, because the butter has been incorporated completely into the dough, but breadier than a muffin. I made a batch with white flour and white sugar and my daughter said they were like a cross between a sugar cookie and a scone.

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