Making Gingerbread, The 1796 Way

By Hannah Elder, Assistant Reference Librarian for Rights and Reproductions

Happy December! As I write this, Thanksgiving has passed, we are part of the way through Hanukkah, and with Christmas and New Year right around the corner, we are well and truly in the holiday season. For me and my family, the holidays have always meant sharing recipes and baking together. Every year, we make a treat from my great-grandmother’s arsenal of recipes – her doughnuts, tossed in cinnamon sugar, are a perennial favorite. We experiment too, trying new recipes we find online or shared by a friend.

This year, as the holidays approached, I began to wonder what people in the past baked and how they got the recipes. With the collections of the MHS at my fingertips I knew I could find an answer. I started, of course, with our catalog AIBGAIL. Using the subject headings “Cooking” and “Cookbooks” and a simple keyword search for “recipe,” I was able to find a number of interesting titles in our collection. They ranged from manuscript volumes of family recipes, to a collection of recipes used in the kitchen of King Richard II, to published collections of community recipes, lovingly gathered and distributed.

Manuscript recipes for Almond Cheesecake and A Citron Pudding. The pudding recipe covers most of the cheesecake recipe
Recipes from Anonymous recipe book, ca. 1800, ca. 1800
A ca. 1850 pamphlet cookbook, decorated with a woodcut of a cow
Cover of Ladies’ Cooking Assistant and Family Friend
Recipes the utilize alternatives to wheat flour. Includes a table of wheat flour alternatives and recipes for oatmeal muffins, prune and nut bread, and New England Brown Bread, among others.
Fifteen Recipes for Wheat Flour Substitutes and Cereals, a WWI era guide to alternative ingredients

Through browsing these titles, I got a pretty good idea of what people cooked and baked. I also started to understand that recipes spread in the past much how the do today; through word of mouth, passed on to next generations, or found in published cookbooks, written by authors of varying authority. But I wanted to take it a step further. What were early American cookbooks like? Where did the recipes come from? What was the first “home grown” cookbook, written by an American author and published in the United States? For that, I turned to the experts.

In their book United Tastes: The Making of the First American Cookbook, Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald provide answers to all of those questions and more. As the title suggests, the book explores the creation and significance of the first cookbook published by an American author in the United States: American Cookery by Amelia Simmons, published in 1796.

Before American authors began publishing their cookbooks, American home cooks looking for recipes used British (and some French) sources. According to Stavely and Fitzgerald, Simmons’ cookbook is largely a collection of recipes borrowed or copied verbatim from previously published British cookbooks.[1] Of the 192 recipes in American Cookery, only 44 of them (23%) have no obvious precedent in print. The rest were either copied directly from British cookbooks, heavily borrowed from them, or were traditional British dishes.[2] The dishes the Simmons plagiarized were likely already familiar to American audiences, as they came from cookbooks that had been reprinted and circulated in the United States prior to Simmons’ publication. Simmons drew from the cookbooks that struck a balance between refinement and simplicity, a balance that appealed to early Americans. These familiar recipes, combined with the use of American terms such as “molasses,” “cookie,” and “slapjack” as well as foods unknown in Europe such as johnnycakes, argue Stavely and Fitzgerald, are what makes American Cookery a truly American publication.[3]

Title page of American Cookery. The text reads: American Cooke or the Art of Dressing Viands, Poultry and Vegetables and the best modes of making Pastes, Puffs, Pies, Tarts, Puddings, Custards and Preserves, and all kinds of Cakes from the imperial Plumb to Plain Cake Adapted to this Country, and all grades of life by Amelia Simmons, an American Orphan. Published according to act of Congress. Hartford: Printed by Hudson & Goodwin. For the Author. 1796.
Title page of American Cookery by Amelia Simmons (image courtesy of the Library of Congress).

By now, all of this research was making me hungry and left me itching to try out a recipe or two. After considering a few cookbooks and recipe collections, I decided to try one from the original: Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery. Since I was originally drawn into this rabbit hole by my family’s tradition of baking at the holidays, I decided to try my hand at one of Simmons’ sweet recipes. Luckily, there were plenty of them. As Stavely and Fitzgerald observe, “there are more cakes in American Cookery than any other type of food.” [4] At first, I was drawn to a recipe for “Another Christmas Cookey,” but had to rethink my plans when I reached the end of the recipe, which instructs to baker to place the “hard and dry” cookies into “an earthen pot, and dry cellar, or damp room,” after which they will be “finer softer and better when six months old.”[5]

Since that option was out, I decided to make another seasonally appropriate treat: gingerbread. Simmons includes five different recipes for gingerbread in her book and I chose one of her gingerbread cake recipes, titled “Soft Gingerbread to be baked in pans.” In its entirety, the recipe reads:

No. 2. Rub three pounds of sugar, two pounds of butter, into four pounds of flour, add 20 eggs, 4 ounces ginger, 4 spoons of rose water, bake as No. 1.

Text from American Cookery, mostly the recipe for Soft Gingerbread to be baked in pans.
Soft Gingerbread to be baked in pans, taken from a facsimile edition of American Cookery

I did not want enough gingerbread to feed an army, so I reduced the measurements and quartered the recipe. With the help of some internet calculators, I ended up with these measurements:

1 2/3 cup sugar
2 sticks butter, softened
3 1/4 cup flour
5 eggs
1 oz ginger
1 tablespoon rosewater

A picture of flour, an egg carton, sugar, butter, grated ginger, rose water, and a loaf pan sitting on a grey-speckled counter.
Assembled ingredients, photograph by Hannah Elder

My ingredients gathered, I got to work! Although the recipe is light on technique, I used some previous knowledge and baking logic to construct my gingerbread. I started by creaming together the butter and sugar (by hand, with a wooden spoon, the way Amelia would have). Once they were as well combine as I could manage (my arm got tired), I added the flour and “rubbed” the butter and sugar mixture into it.

A picture looking down at the contents of a mixing bowl. It is mostly flour, with chunks of butter and sugar. Measuring cups and other ingredients are visible in the background
Mixing the gingerbread, photograph by Hannah Elder

At this point I must confess something: I don’t know how much flour I added. I was using a ¼ cup scoop to measure my flour and at the time I thought I had counted correctly. Looking back, I’m not sure whether I measured out 2 ¼ or 3 ¼ cups of flour. If I did use 2 ¼ cups, it was not a fatal flaw.

Once the unknown volume of flour was incorporated and had a texture a bit like damp sand, I added all of my wet ingredients. I gave it all a good mix and wound up with a thick, glossy batter. I plopped most of the batter into a pie pan (I abandoned the idea of the loaf pan but I don’t have a proper cake pan) and shepherded it into the oven.

A pale, glossy batter sits inside an aluminum pie plate which is resting on the top of the gas burners of a stove.
Gingerbread batter before going into the oven, photograph by Hannah Elder.

While Simmons provides a baking time (15 minutes), I had to guess on the temperature. I tried 375°F, hoping to have the oven hot enough that it would cook in a reasonable time, but not so hot as to scorch my creation. As it went into the oven, I was most nervous about the thickness of the batter (very) and the lack of leavening agent. I was afraid I would end up with a tough, rubbery disk of ginger-flavored putty.

I checked it after 15 minutes, and while it wasn’t done by any means, it looked much more promising than I anticipated. I gave it another 10 minutes and was rewarded with something that looked and smelled great, far better than I ever imagined it could.

The batter is now cooked. It is no longer glossy and is now toasted around the edges. It looks like it would be vanilla flavored.
Baked gingerbread, photograph by Hannah Elder.

I gave it some time to cool and dug in. This gingerbread has a unique texture, more like a cornbread or another quick bread than the gingerbread cakes of today. It’s also much lighter in color than most would expect, owing to its lack of molasses. The rosewater adds a nice, unexpected floral note that balances the sharpness of the ginger. I used grated ginger from a tube that was likely much fresher than anything Amelia Simmons or her contemporaries would have used, but I think it is still a balanced cake and the ginger is not overwhelming. In all, I call this experiment a success!

If you’ve enjoyed this exploration of old-fashioned recipes, I encourage you to  check out previous posts on this blog by other MHS staff members Alex Bush, who tried to make bread pudding, and Emilie Haertsch, who tried Benjamin Franklin’s recipe for milk punch.

Happy Holidays to you and yours!

[1] Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald, United Tastes: The Making of the First American Cookbook (University of Massachusetts Press, 2017), 2.

[2] Ibid., 21.

[3] Ibid., 204-206.

[4] Ibid., 7.

[5] Amelia Simmons, American cookery, or, The art of dressing viands, fish, poultry, and vegetables : and the best modes of making pastes, puffs, pies, tarts, puddings, custards, and preserves : and all kinds of cakes, from the imperial plumb to plain cake, adapted to this country, and all grades of life (Hudson & Goodwin, 1796), 35.


    Very interesting and entertaining article. I love that you mentioned your Great Grammie’s donuts . You became a master donut maker over the years and an expert baker after many years of practice in the kitchen with your Mom.

    Looking ahead a few years to Eliza Leslie, lightness in cakes was achieved by beating the eggs. I would guess that this was something that didn’t need to be stated prior to the use of chemical leavening. 5 eggs could create plenty of leavening if beaten until very light to incorporate plenty of air bubbles, a technique is not common in modern cookery.

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