Let them eat gingerbread

14 Feb

gingerbread in box

 

 

One of the many recipes I’ve meaning to try for some time is one sent to me by my secondary school history teacher, Mrs V.  It’s a Dan Lepard from the Guardian newspaper at about the time of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee last year and although it doesn’t give an historical source for the gingerbread recipe its rich, treacly texture and heady mix of spices seem resonant of a past era when such a combination of costly ingredients would have made it a luxurious treat.

Gingerbread, which the OED defines as ‘From the 15th c. onwards: A kind of plain cake, compounded with treacle, and highly flavoured with ginger. Formerly made into shapes of men, animals, letters of the alphabet, etc., which were often gilded’ is a sweetmeat with a long history, appearing in both Chaucer and Shakespeare.  The earliest instance of its use in the OED dates from 1299 when it’s mentioned in the Durham MS. Burs. Roll, ‘In ij Gurdis de Gingebrar’.  And although as its name suggests most gingerbread recipes were flavoured with gingerbread this was not always the case.  Another of the OED quotations dates from 1430 and Two Cookery-bk,s ‘Gyngerbrede. Take a quart of hony..Safroun, pouder Pepir..gratyd Brede’ – no mention of ginger here!

The food historian Ivan Day has an excellent page on his website exploring Lady Barbara Fleming’s recipe for gingerbread from 1673, where the dough is given an intense red colour from sanders, the wood of the sandalwood tree.  Ivan gives a number of different gingerbread recipes and illustrates how it gradually changed from being an almond paste, breadcrumb based recipe to one more commonly made using treacle and flour.  Dan Lepard’s recipe uses both treacle and flour but other ingredients like honey and chopped peel hark back to some of the older, pre-Victorian recipes.

Dr Johnson’s 1755 definition of gingerbread is close to that of the OED ‘A kind of farinaceous sweetmeat made of dough, like that of bread or biscuit, sweetened with treacle, and flavoured with ginger and some other aromatick seeds’.  One of the innovative aspects of Dr Johnson’s dictionary was the vast number of quotations he included, to illustrate how words were used in speech, and as well as quoting from Love’s Labour Lost (‘An’ I had but one penny in the world, thou should’st have it to buy gingerbread’) he also quoted Jonathan Swift, ‘Tis a loss you are not here, to partake of three weeks frost, and eat gingerbread in a booth by a fire upon the Thames’.  Swift’s quotation conjures up a vision of crisp winter air, jangling bells and the raucous shouts and laughter of London enjoying a great frost fair, warmed by tankards of hot ale and firey gingerbread.  In a similar suggestion of conviviality Dan Lepard suggests that his gingerbread is ‘ever so good cut into small diamonds to serve with brandy after dinner.’

The regal and showy qualities of gingerbread have deep roots and it was often gilded which W King in his 1708 Art of Cookery poetically describes as ‘The enticing Gold on Ginger-bread’.  Another long gingerbread tradition is that of shaping forming the dough into shapes, often human figures or alphabet letters, with a knife, cutters or elaborate moulds.  In Cowper’s Table Talk, scorning mere showy possessions, he rhetorically suggests ‘As if the poet, purposing to wed, Should carve himself a wife in ginger~bread’.

It’s highly appropriate that Mrs V should pass on a historically based gingerbread recipe to me since I am the student who tortured her history class with the products of my experimentation with a medieval gingerbread.  I always enjoyed Mrs V’s lessons (earlier in my school career she taught me English) and her engaging and thought provoking teaching strengthened and nurtured my love of history and helped to confirm it’s what I wanted to study at university.  From the Frondes of 17th century France to the enlightened despotism of Joseph II (discuss) the lessons swung their way through early modern European history with regular tangential discussions about Mrs V’s exciting birth (in Coventry during the Blitz) to the depressing frequency of greengrocers’ apostrophes.  All of this helped to install in me a belief in the importance of the seemingly insignificant, especially when it came to history.  I was fascinated by the social minutiae of the lives of peoples past, how they did things, what did it sound, taste, feel like?  Given my love of social history and baking it was perhaps unsurprisingly that I used my classmates and Mrs V as guinea pigs for my attempt at this medieval gingerbread recipe.  I remember that its base mixture of breadcrumbs and honey didn’t look particularly appealing as I made it.  This was then flavoured with spices and divided into two, with one half coloured an alarming red.  The idea was to roll it out, cut into squares, bake it and then arrange it in a chequerboard pattern.  Quite how I presented it, or where exactly I found the recipe, I can’t remember but the look of forced enjoyment on the faces of my history class as they struggled to swallow my strange historic creation I will not forget.

Happily I had far more success with Dan Lepard’s recipe; it was a delight to prepare, with wafts of ginger, mace and cinnamon dancing in the air, and the pleasure gained from watching the ingredients combine into a dark, rich dough.  It was also very straightforward; once the dough was formed it’s just pressed into a baking tin and stuffed with almonds (Dan suggested cutting them in half but I just stuck mine in whole).

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flour, sugar, ginger, cinnamon, mace, nutmeg

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apricots, peel and ginger

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flour and treacle mixture

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gingerbread dough ready to go

Dan explains in the introduction to his gingerbread recipe that you should expect a dense texture, like a paneforte, and as they bake the apricots, candied peel and ginger melt into the honey and molasses.  The resulting gingerbread is intense, chewy and very moreish.  I haven’t any brandy to try it out with yet but I’ve found it difficult to stop myself taking another slice.  In texture and taste it reminds me of the wonderful Grasmere gingerbread from the Lake District.  And while my cutting of the gingerbread was hardly sufficiently well executed to be fit for a queen, a touch of gold dusting powder not only gave it a certain regal air but also offered a contemporary nod to the fabulous tradition of gilded gingerbread

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     the gingerbread out of the oven 

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not quite the diamond shape Dan Lepard suggested but given a bit of extra sparkle with some gold powder

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2 Responses to “Let them eat gingerbread”

  1. Cesca February 14, 2013 at 12:52 pm #

    I will try these they look fabulous, and I love your accompanying thoughts and stories too xx

  2. Mrs C July 20, 2013 at 12:46 am #

    How funny – I was telling someone about Mrs V teaching me history just a couple of days ago and her Coventry birth!

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