An autumn afternoon called for gingerbread so I consulted my recipe books to find something suitable.
The first documented trade of gingerbread biscuits was in the sixteenth century, where they were sold in pharmacies, monasteries and town square farmers’ markets.
Before that gingerbread was made of honey. A medieval recipe from 1430 in Jane Grigson’s English Food (1974) gives us a good idea of what early gingerbread was like. Honey was warmed and skimmed then breadcrumbs were added. It was flavoured with black pepper and cinammon and presumably ginger (though forgotten in the original recipe!).
This later recipe from Sir Hugh Platt’s wonderfully titled Delightes for Ladies omits the honey and uses wine and sugar instead, but is very similar. I didn’t have aniseed and ground liquorice in the pantry in my Regency kitchen so indeed used ground fennel. Below is the original recipe and below that my modern translation.
Take three stale Manchets (bread rolls) and grate them, drie (dry) them, and sift them through a fine sieve, then adde unto them one ounce of ginger beeing beaten, an as much Cinnamon, one ounce of liquorice and aniseeds being beaten together and searced (sieved), half a round of sugar, then boil all these together in a posset (pan), with a quarter of claret wine till they come to a stiff paste with often stirring of it; and when it is stiffe, mold it on a table and so drive it thin, and print it in your moulds: dust your moulds with Cinamon, Ginger and liquorice, beeing mixed together in a fine powder. This is your gingerbread used at the Court, and in all gentlemen’s houses at festival times. It is otherwise called drie Leach.
- 185 grams white bread crumbs
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1 tsp ground fennel
- 25 grams sugar (granulated or castor)
- 150 ml red wine
Dry the breadcrumbs in a low oven for 1 hour. 100 degrees is fine.
Put the dried breadcrumbs into a small saucepan with the ginger, cinnamon, ground fennel, sugar and pour in the red wine.
Work the mixture over a gentle heat until it forms a stiff dough. This takes a few minutes only. I use a non stick pan because the mixture sticks so easily.
Put baking paper onto your kitchen table and lightly dust it with a mix of powdered ginger, cinnamon, and fennel. Put the breadcrumb dough onto the middle of the baking paper and cover with another sheet of baking paper. Roll out the dough between these two layers. The dough is sticky and this makes the whole process much easier. Roll out to a thickness of 5mm.
Carefully peel off the top sheet of baking paper and then either cut out heart shaped biscuits, like I did, or bake the sheet whole. The dough can be sticky. Sometimes it might be easier to leave the shapes and pull away the excess dough around the shapes you want. If you’ve sprinkled enough powdered spices you might find it easy to take off the shapes from the baking paper. In both cases put the shapes onto a baking sheet and bake in a preheated oven 180 degrees for 10 minutes. Although the original recipe doesn’t call for this it does produce a much nicer end result.
Enjoy and do tell me if you make these gingerbread biscuits from the seventeenth century. Highly recommended for an authentic ginger kick.