Today is World Baking Day – the perfect excuse for making – and eating – our favourite cakes. This week staff at the Hartley Library held a charity bake sale to raise money for Solent Mind, a great cause and one of several charities we will be supporting through 2017 http://www.solentmind.org.uk/
We enjoy the tradition of sharing, swopping, and passing on, favourite recipes. Some of these may be older than we think: I recently discovered in the Archives a 19th-century version of a recipe that is a real favourite with my family today: Grantham Gingerbread
This little volume has ‘Ledger’ in red on the spine and contains lined pages – it was intended for recording accounts – but is actually a manuscript recipe book. You can just see the word ‘Receipes’ written in ink on the front. It has a beautiful parchment cover, decorated with blind tooling and embossed to create a raised design, with combed marbled book edges. The brass clasp closure bears the words “improved patent” above the image of a lion:
Inside, it has glorious decorative endpapers – perhaps Dutch gilt – showing a printed design of tiny gold stars on a bright pink background. There is even an alphabetical index with finding tabs, each tab printed with two letters. So this is a special book – and it is no surprise that it was treasured and passed on:
The recipe book is undated and we don’t know who originally filled its pages: but it is likely to be mid-19th century and was added to by several owners. It contains fair copies of recipes in at least two different hands, plus a few printed recipes cut from newspapers. It was clearly in use long before it came into the collection of Miss Annie Mary Trout, who worked as a lecturer in Mathematics at University College, Southampton, in the 1920s.
It was the recipe for Grantham Gingerbread that caught my eye: seen here on the right-hand page; (on the left-hand page you can see recipes for ‘Cake’, and Hot Cross Buns).
It contains some very old-fashioned ingredients – such as ‘½ an ounce of volatile salts’ and ‘1 penny worth of essence of lemon’! It poses more than a few challenges for the modern cook: the quantities of flour and sugar are quite huge; it doesn’t use an egg; there are no details of cooking temperatures, or timings, and only the scantiest method for guidance:
1 ½ lbs flour
1 ½ lbs of very fine sugar
¼ lb butter
1 oz of best ground ginger
2 oz of lemon peel
½ oz of volatile salts ground
& mixed in a teacupful of
new milk, 1 penny worth
of essence of lemon, a little
more milk if required to make
it into a stiff paste, melt
the butter & mix together
Another name for the ‘volatile salts’ in the recipe is ‘Baker’s Ammonia’ or ammonium bicarbonate, which was used as a raising agent in the days before baking powder was commonly available. It has a strong and horrible smell – these were the salts that were used to revive fainting ladies in Victorian times! It wasn’t an ideal ingredient, as the smell of the ammonia released during heating might linger after cooking. By the mid-19th century, when this recipe was copied out, baking powder was already available – so this was an ‘old’ recipe even at that time. What did it taste like?
You can see that Grantham Gingerbread is not the traditional dark, treacle-based cake that we tend to associate with gingerbread, but a large crisp and chewy ginger cookie. It is apt that we have a historic recipe here – because gingerbread is one of the oldest of all cakes – and there are many different regional variations. Some are deep ginger cakes; others are thin and crisp biscuits or ‘buttons’, fairings or gingerbread men. This heritage version went down well with friends and family. Here is my adapted recipe for World Baking Day:
Grantham Gingerbread 2017
12 ozs plain flour
12 ozs soft light brown sugar
2 ozs butter, melted
2 tablespoons ground ginger (or less or more!)
1 oz mixed peel
1tsp bicarbonate of soda
½ cup of milk
zest of a lemon
Mix ingredients together until a stiff dough is formed. Pat into a ball and knead until smooth. Divide into 24 equal pieces, rolling each into a ball; place onto a greased baking tray, allowing room to spread.
Bake for 25-30 mins until golden and crisp at 160ºC/325ºF/Gas Mark 3
Remove from oven; leave to cool for a few minutes; transfer to a wire rack to cool
Once I had worked out some alternative ingredients, and halved the quantities, the 19th-century recipe seemed easier to make than my modern recipe. Everything was stirred together, which took little effort (no need to cream butter and sugar, or beat in an egg; no sifting; and using melted butter and a little milk makes it easy to work in the large volume of flour!) Be careful to pour in the milk, a little at a time. Add ginger to taste, but note that the original recipe calls for ‘best ground ginger’, probably fresh ginger, rather than the dried ground ginger we use today.
For an excellent modern version of Grantham White Gingerbread try the recipe in Julie Duff’s Cakes – Regional and Traditional.