Monday, September 8, 2014

The History of Gingerbread: There Really Was Bread in It!

Medieval Gingerbread
"And I Had One Penny in the World.  Thou Should'st Have it to Buy Gingerbread." -- William Shakespeare, Love's Labours Lost

The History of English Gingerbread:

Medieval Ginger Paste Confections:  The Bread in the Gingerbread
Back in the Medieval days, if you asked for gingerbread, you would be very surprised indeed by what you would receive. Early English gingerbreads were essentially a mixture of boiled honey, breadcrumbs (hence the name 'gingerBREAD'), ginger (and often other spices), and sometimes red sanders (ground sandalwood chips) added for color.

Here is one such recipe (however, ironically, there is no ginger in this one!) from Two 15th c. Cookery-Books by Thomas Austin, 1888 which is based on several period English manuscripts, most notably Harleian MS. 279 and Harleian MS. 4016, both circa 1425-1450:

"Gyngerbrede.--Take a quart of hony, & sethe it, & skeme it clene; take Safroun, pouder Pepir, & throw ther-on; take grayted Bred, & make it so chargeaunt that it wol be y-lechyd; then take pouder Canelle, & straw ther-on y-now; then make yt square, lyke as thou wolt leche yt; take when thou lechyst hyt, an caste Box leves a-bouyn, y-stykyd ther-on, on clowys. And if thou wolt haue it Red, coloure it with Saunderys y-now."

Here is a translation by William Edward Mead in The English Medieval Feast:

"Take a quart of honey and seethe it and skim it clean. Take saffroun, powdered pepper, and throw thereon. Take grated bread and make it so stiff that it will be leched (cut in slices). Then take cinnamon powder and strew thereon enough. Then make it square as though thou wouldst slice it. Take, when thou slicest it, and cast box leaves above, stuck thereon in cloves. And if thou will have it red, color it with saunders (sandalwood) enough."(1)

A Note About Sanders

Sanders come from the ground wood (not roots) of the sandalwood tree of India.  Sanders must have been used quite a lot because according to food historian, Ivan Day, in the 16th century there was a sanders beaters guild.(2)

Ground Sanders

Red Sanders Packages by Dobyns & Martin, Grocers

Food Historian Peter Brears offers a transcription of a version of this type of gingerbread recipe:

Gingerbread (with bread)

8oz/225g clear honey
6oz/150g white bread crumbs
2-3tsp ground ginger
a few drops red food color (for sanders)
sugar and cloves to garnish

Boil the honey, stir in the food color, ginger and breadcrumbs, and work in the pan over a low heat with a spatula for a few minutes, then leave until cool enough to handle.

Knead the gingerbread to form a smooth dough and either pack into a shallow box, or roll out to around 3/8 inch/10 mm thick in square slabs. From this, small squares may be cut for serving at the ‘void’.(3) [the void occurred at the end of a Medieval feast, where aides to digestion were offered in the form of confectionary and sweet/spiced wine such as Hippocras.]

My Hints for Making This Recipe:

  • If using real sanders instead of food coloring (like I did), use 1 teaspoon.
  • Roll out on parchment paper (to prevent sticking and possible staining of your countertop).
  • To prevent sticking while rolling out the dough, wet your hands and the rolling pin first.
  • I decorated the gingerbread with box leaves stuck to each piece with cloves, just as was directed in the 15th century recipe!
Mixing together all of the ingredients.

The Gilt of the Gingerbread
Gingerbread could also be formed using elaborately carved wooden moulds.  Images of men, women, animals could be impressed in the moulds, baked, and then sometimes covered in gold leaf.  This explains the expression "gilt of the gingerbread".  In addition, white gingerbreads could be made using almond marzipans instead of bread.(4) 

Gingerbread Transforms Over Time
By the 16th century and into the 17th c. gingerbreads were transformed by replacing the breadcrumbs with flour and the honey with molasses.  With time, butter and eggs were also added.

Significantly, by the late 18th century, when the chemical leavening agents potash and its refined cousin, pearlash (potassium carbonate), began to be used more widely in the culinary arena, many of the earliest baking recipes to use these leavening agents were for gingerbreads because the acidic molasses reacted well with the alkali potassium (bi)carbonate to produce the necessary aeration to lighten the end product.  

Here is a recipe for gingerbread with pearlash from American Cookery, the first cookbook published by an American, Amelia Simmons in 1796:

Gingerbread Cakes, or butter and sugar Gingerbread.
No. 1. 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.


2.  Ivan Day, Food History Jottings blog, "A Medieval Meal for Real," (20 January 2014)
3.  Brears, Peter.  Cooking and Dining in Medieval England, Prospect Books, 2012.
4.  Davidson, Alan.  The Penguin Companion to Food, Penguin Books, 1999.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.