As Christmas approaches, thoughts begin to turn to the age-old traditions surrounding the holiday. For some, favorites may be the exchange of gifts, others may adore the family gathering, but for many the meals surrounding Christmas are the highlight of the holiday. Amongst children, the best part of the Christmas meal is the final course: dessert. But is this consistent throughout history? What did they eat at the end of the meal in the 1800s?
Just like today, one of the most popular cookie recipes of the Christmas table in the 1800s was gingerbread. These cinnamon-ginger cookies have been a hit with people throughout history, first becoming popular in Europe in the 1500s. Just like today, they were cut into the shapes, sometimes of flowers, diamonds, or men. However, in the 1800s, they were often molded using intricately carved wooden stamps, pressed into the soft dough and then baked.
The popularity of using these cookies to build houses, just as we do today, was likely started with the release of the stories by the Brothers Grimm. The story of Hansel and Gretel, with the witch living in a house of gingerbread, popularized the idea of a house made of cookie.
Due to the limited availability of ingredients, particularly in the deep Canadian winters, gingerbread recipes varied greatly. Because of the lack of availability of fresh produce and white sugar, the cookies were more frequently made with dried spices, brown sugar, and molasses, characterizing the dark molasses flavor we think of today. It is believed that the gingerbread cookie as we know it was based on the speculaas cookie, another spiced cookie.
Soft gingerbread, a more cake-like spiced bread, was made popular in North America by Mary Washington, mother of George Washington, during the 1700s.
If you want to test out a traditional recipe, here is one from the New York Times Heritage Cookbook. Happy baking!
(adapted from the New York Times Heritage Cookbook)
- 3/4 cup molasses
- 3/4 cup butter
- 3/4 cup dark brown sugar
- 4 1/2 cups flour, plus more for rolling surface
- 2 1/2 tsp ground ginger
- 2 tsp cinnamon
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp baking soda
- 1 egg, lightly beaten
- chosen decorations
- In a pan on the stove, heat the molasses. Add the butter and stir until it has melted
Stir in the brown sugar, mixing until homogenous throughout. Let cool
- In a separate bowl, whisk together flour, ginger, cinnamon, baking powder, baking soda(traditionally they used only baking soda, called ‘alkaline’ in the 1800s), and salt
- Add the cooled molasses mixture and the beaten egg to the dry ingredients. Mix, eventually using your hands, to bring the dough together
- Wrap the dough and chill it, typically for 1-2 hours
- Remove the dough from the fridge and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
- Cut the dough into quarters. Replace ¾ of the dough in the fridge, working with ¼ at a time. Roll out on a floured surface to a ¼ inch thick
- Cut with a well-floured cookie cutter, and, using a spatula, move them to a parchment lined cookie pan. You can also roll the dough out on parchment, then cut the cookies leaving about ½ inch between them, and simply remove the excess dough and re-roll. This eliminates the step of moving the dough.
- Bake for 12-15 minutes. While the first batch is in the oven, continue with the remaining dough, working with ¼ at a time. By keeping the dough chilled, it is easier to work with.
- Decorate! In the 1800s, cookies that were decorated were frequently for nobility and the rich, so they were decorated with gold leaf, however dried fruit, sprinkles, royal icing and candy are most popular today!