A detail from a gingerbread cecipie from the 18th century.

Spice of History: A Gingerbread Recipe

By the NLM Associate Fellows, 2018–2019 Stacy Brody, Sarah Clarke, Amelia Llorens, Cecelia Vetter, and Paije Wilson ~ 

Recipe books from the 18th century (known as “receipt books” at that time) hold a combination of food recipes, herbal remedies, and other such household creations thought to improve health, demonstrating the close tie between medicine and cookery during the time period.

Inspired by a presentation from a colleague at the National Library of Medicine, and hankering for some homemade holiday cookies, we decided to bake gingerbread from one of the historic recipe books in the NLM Digital Collections.

The original recipe that inspired our culinary history adventure came from a 1706 book of receipts featured at a presentation on collection digitization.  However, it presented us with a range of issues. Not only did we find the script nearly indecipherable, we also encountered unfamiliar ingredients and dated units of measure. Where could we find food-grade sandalwood, or, for that matter, a grain of musk? The author, Elizabeth Broomhoad, demonstrated her cooking skill in providing recipes for good, better, and best versions of her gingerbread. However, we struggled with her baking instructions and didn’t feel we could manage even the good version.

Eventually, we found a recipe we felt we could bake in a book that proclaimed itself to be “Very necessary for Ladies, Gentlemen and their Servants,” titled The guide to preferment: or, Powell’s complete book of cookery and published in the late 18th century. Powell’s “ginger bread” recipe includes ingredients easily found in today’s grocery store and provides measures still in use today. As we baked, we pondered questions of culinary history—when did ovens start to include thermometers and programmable temperatures to standardize baking times, and how much flour will make this buttery mix into a stiff paste? Answer: 6 ¾ cups.

A page from a printed book including a recipe for ginger bread
The guide to preferment: or, Powell’s complete book of cookery, ca. 1785
National Library of Medicine #2731642R

Today’s bestselling cookbooks bear little resemblance to the recipe books of the past. Unlike a modern cookbook, Powell’s presents no image of prettily poised cookies beside a glass of milk. Instead, Powell offers recipes in which ingredients and instructions are written together and which include no precise notes on how to measure and mix ingredients. These paragraph recipes expect the user to have prior baking experience.

We reached out to living historians Sarah Schackne-Hermann from Historic Richmond Town and Michael Clarke from the Liberty Rifles for help in modernizing Powell’s recipe For making Ginger Bread. On weekends, both can be found educating the public while cooking in period ovens and over open fires following 18th and 19th century recipes. They answered our questions surrounding the baking instructions, such as, what is the temperature of a “quick oven?” Answer: about 350 F. And how long is “a little time?” Answer: about 5 to 10 minutes. They also confirmed that treacle is the British term for molasses.

A woman stirs baking ingredients in a bowl.Armed with their helpful advice, we melted four sticks of butter, mixed sugar and spice, and stirred in flour until our arms ached. Drawing on our own experiences baking holiday cookies, we adapted the historic recipe for the modern kitchen by chilling the dough before rolling it out. We took the creative liberty of cutting our cookies into heart shapes before baking. Our efforts yielded success: dizzyingly delicious aromas and 80 timelessly tasty cookies. We hope you enjoy baking a bite of history and have a happy and healthy holiday season.

Gingerbread Cookies Adapted from Powell’s recipe For making Ginger Bread.

  • Gingerbread cookie ingredients in a mixing bowl.½ cup and 2 tsp. packed brown sugar
  • 2 Tbs. and 2 tsp. ground ginger
  • 1 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1 tsp. cloves
  • 1 tsp. mace (or substitute with extra nutmeg)
  • 1 Tbs. coriander
  • 1 Tbs. caraway seeds
  • 6 ¾ cups flour
  • 1 cup molasses
  • 1 egg beaten
  • 2 cups butter, melted

Instructions:

  • Heart shaped cookies on a baking sheet.Melt butter and let cool.
  • In a separate bowl, combine dry ingredients.
  • Stir the molasses and egg into the cooled, melted butter. Gradually mix in the dry ingredients, stirring by hand.
  • Place dough in freezer for 15 min.
  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  • Roll dough out to approximately ¼ an inch, use flour to prevent sticking.
  • Cut out using cookie cutters.
  • Bake at 350 degrees for 7 min.

Makes approximately 80 cookies

The 2018–2019 NLM Associate Fellows:

Stacy Brody earned her MI from Rutgers University. Her favorite cookie to bake is Milano cookies.

Sarah Clarke earned her MSLS from Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She has a sweet tooth and enjoys all cookies.

Amelia Llorens earned her MSIS from University of Texas at Austin. Her favorite part of holiday gatherings is the cheese platter.

Cecelia Vetter earned her MLIS from University of Maryland, College Park. Her favorite treat is oatmeal cookies with dried cranberries and walnuts.

Paije Wilson earned her MLIS from the University of Iowa. Her favorite holiday treat is lefsa with butter and sugar.

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