I'm participating in this project largely as a way to encourage me to do more period cooking. I love to cook.
I've always had zero interest in cooking at events and generally keep a cold camp with purchased, but period-appropriate, foods.
The first challenge was to create a dish mentioned in a work of literature. Pretty much arbitrarily, I chose gingerbread. I'm currently listening to Elizabeth Gaskell's Mooreland Cottage (1850), and Chapter 1 mentions boiled potatoes and gingerbread. The latter seemed like a better choice. I'd been thinking of making it anyway as I accidentally made a triple batch of cream cheese icing I need to use up. I figured if it was terrible, I could always drown it in icing.
I looked around for a historic gingerbread recipe for which I had all the ingredients and found this one from The Improved Housewife: Or, Book of Receipts; with Engravings for Marketing and Carving by Mrs. A.L. Webster, a married lady:
The first thing I did was halve the ingredients, weighed them out and came up with approximately the following measures: 2/3 c granulated sugar, 1.5 sticks of butter, 2/3 c golden syrup, 1 2/3 c flour, and 1 egg. For the spices, I looked at some modern cookie recipes and also studied my measuring spoons to roughly calculate ounces and ratios. I went with 1 t. each of nutmeg, cinnamon, dried orange peel, and dried lemon peel. In re-reading, I see I accidentally skipped the mace. I used a whole tablespoon of ginger. For the nuts, 1/4 oz. seemed hardly worth the effort, so I just dumped in the last of some sliced almonds I had in the freezer (about 2+T) and didn't bother to skin them.
The next question for me was how to cook the gingerbread. The batter was like a quick-bread consistency: thicker than cake batter, but not cookie batter by any means. When the recipe said "make into cakes," it made me wonder if I should be able to shape the dough before baking. It also said "on" not "in" tins. Should they have been more cookie-like than cake-like? I just guessed based on the consistency and put it in an 8" greased cake pan and baked at 350 for 45 minutes. I started testing with a toothpick every 10 minutes after the first 20. I let the cake cool in the pan for 10 minutes before putting on a wire rack to cool completely.
Date/Year and Region: 1847, Hartford, CT
How did you make it?: I generally followed the recipe, but cut it in half so as not to waste ingredients if something went wrong. I skipped the step of washing the butter in rosewater (since I wasn't making my butter from scratch), used dried instead of candied peel, accidentally left out the mace, added extra almonds but skipped the blanching and peeling.
Time to Complete: Prep time was about 10 minutes, and baking was about 45 minutes.
Total Cost: I've got a very well-stocked pantry, so I had everything on hand. Out-of-pocket expenses were zero.
How Successful Was It?: As you can see, the cake stuck to the pan. Next time, I would probably line the bottom of the pan in buttered parchment. That said, the fruit peel gives the cake an amazing taste, and the cooked treacle and butter gives a great chew to the crust. I really liked it.
How Accurate Is It?: Pretty accurate, I'd say. I didn't make my own butter, and I used a convection oven.
I would definitely make this again. My husband doesn't like spice cakes or gingerbreads, so he may be the ultimate tester for this. I'll update again with his thoughts.
UPDATE: The texture of the bread when it cooled was much like a brownie: crunchier near the edges and very chewy and dense towards the middle. I was unable to get a gingerbread-hating neighbor to even try it. My DH tried it and said that while he appreciated that it wasn't as spicy as other gingerbreads, he didn't really enjoy it. All the more for me, I say!