My kitchen baking this holiday season seems to be all about ginger. Last week I went non-traditional with a light sugar dusted ginger cake spiced up with a dose of white pepper and drenched in a tart lemon glaze. The result was a nice change of pace.
This week I am back to doing it old-school, so old-school that my recipe is adapted from The Art of Cookery, published in London in 1760. This recipe for Ginger-Bread Cakes or Cookies came to me in a small booklet titled “Recipes from the Raleigh Tavern Bake Shop.” I picked it up on a visit to Colonial Williamsburg when I lived in Virginia in the 1980’s. There I was intrigued by a wonderful Gingerbread Cookie purchased from the bake shop. It had an interesting texture and a complex spiciness that made me want more. I asked about the recipe and was directed to this small book.
Inside I found a collection of delightfully authentic eighteenth-century recipes, with quantities of ingredients woven into the quaint and conversational directions. The recipe for Ginger-Bread Cakes begins with instructions to “take three pounds of flour…” then direct the reader to ‘make up the bread stiff; roll it out, and make it up into thin cakes…” before “baking them on tin plates in a slack oven.”
Fortunately each recipe is also translated into a more contemporary style using familiar terminology and quantities adapted to make them more manageable for today’s home cooks.
Remembering the taste of those hearty Williamsburg Gingerbread cookies I enjoyed so long ago I decided to dig out that recipe and try to recreate it this Christmas season. The recipe is fairly simple, as written in the book. Mixing the dough was quick and easy and used only one bowl, promising an easy clean-up. Mixing the sugar with the fresh spices I recently bought at Penzeys released a wonderful fragrance in the kitchen adding an extra festive edge to the process.
In the end I added more flour than the recipe called for and still needed to refrigerate the dough overnight before it was stiff enough for me to roll out successfully and cut into shapes. Once chilled I was able to cut out a selection of gingerbread men that were just the right size for dipping in coffee
and Ninja-bread Men that made use of the clever cookie cutters my youngest son gave me for Christmas last year.
If you prefer not to wait for the dough to chill you can instead roll or scoop it into 1-inch balls, roll the balls in course sugar and smash them slightly with a fork before baking. These cookies will be thicker and softer than those cut into shapes.
Traditional Gingerbread Cookies
adapted from Recipes from the Raleigh Tavern Bake Shop
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons ginger
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon white pepper and/or ancho chile powder (optional)
½ teaspoon salt
1½ teaspoons baking soda
1 cup butter, melted
½ cup evaporated milk
1 cup unsulfered molasses
¾ teaspoon vanilla extract (optional)
¾ teaspoon lemon extract (optional)
4½ - 5½ cups flour (I used all-purpose white flour)
Coarse decorator sugar crystals
Preheat oven to 375F.
In a large bowl combine the sugar, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, white pepper or ancho chile powder (if desired), salt, and baking soda, mixing well.
Add the melted butter, evaporated milk and molasses. Stir in extracts, if desired.
Add the flour, 1 cup at a time. (Note: the lesser amount of flour is best for shaping cookies into balls. For a dough that is easier to roll out and shape with cookie cutters, use the greater amount of flour.)
To make Gingerbread Rounds:
Shape dough into 1-inch balls. Roll each ball in coarse decorator sugar.
Place balls on greased cookie sheets. Mash each slightly with a fork or your thumb.
Bake at 375F for 10 - 12 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.
To make Gingerbread Cut-outs:
Divide dough into thirds. Wrap each third in waxed paper or plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
When ready to shape the cookies remove one section of dough at a time. Place the dough on a floured surface and roll to a ¼-inch thickness. Flour cookie cutters and cut dough into shapes.
Place shapes on Greased cookie sheets. Sprinkle with coarse decorator sugar, if desired.
Bake at 375F for 8 - 10 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.