Our colonial ancestors did not quite celebrate Christmas as we do today. It was strictly a religious holiday, in fact, it was illegal to celebrate it at all in Massachusetts until the middle of the 19th century. The feasting and revelry we are accustomed to today did not take place until after Christmas.
We are sometimes inclined to think that the late 18th century cooks were rather Neanderthal in their cookery, but this is certainly not the case.
Here is a recipe for a delicious gingerbread from Mary Ball Washington, George's mother. This was served to Lafayette and probably to General Rochambeau on the march to Yorktown.
The recipe has been adjusted to account for modern ingredients and measurements, while retaining the original as much as possible. We thank a Foodwine list member, Sulcus, for providing this.
Cut up in a pan
one-half cup of the very best fresh butter with one-half cup excellent brown sugar, beat to a cream with a paddle. Add 1 cup dark West India molasses and one-half cup warm milk, 2 tablespoons powdered ginger and 1 heaping teaspoon mixed ground cinnamon, mace and nutmeg; 1 wine glass (that's 3 ounces) ofbrandy, rum or maidera Beat 3 eggs till very light and thick. Sift 3 cups of flour and 1 teaspoon of cream of tartar. Stir alternately with the beaten eggs into the batter. Last, mix in the juice and grated rind of 1 large orange. Dissolve 1 teaspoon of soda in a little warm water and stir in. Beat until very light. A cup of seeded raisins is an addition. Bake in loaf, sheet or patty pans in a moderate oven.
By today's standards, a moderate oven might be 325 to 350 degrees Farenheit. The final gingerbread is meant to be bread like in consistancy. The flour was very fine, so sifting is important, even triple sifting would not be out of order here. In Colonial times, spices were ground freshly for each use to give the most vibrant flavor. Even if you do not grind your spices fresh, be sure they are not old nor stale for this.
How do you tell when it is done without a time in this recipe? Apparently, 18th century cooks understood these things. After it has baked awhile, 40 to 45 minutes, gently pull the pan out so you can stick a wooden toothpick or thin blade of a sharp knife in the center. If it comes out clean, the gingerbread is done, if not, try again in a few minutes.
This gingerbread improves with a bit of age. You can store in a metal cake box for two to four days, the flavors continue to improve.
Though it can be served as is, an 18th century cook might have prepared a simple hard glaze for it from butter, sugar, water and a liquor of choice, probably the same one used in the recipe.
Sounds delicious for Christmas Eve or even Christmas Morning as a kind of coffeecake. I hope you enjoy.
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