Gingerbread: A True American Cake - No. 128
Happy July 4th! This year I’m craving something more substantial than flag cake
OH, DON’T GET ME WRONG, flag cake is festive, and I love to transform a simple sheet cake into an American flag with just white icing and fresh berries. But this Independence Day, I want more.
America is awash with despair and everything seems out of whack, from the war in Ukraine to brutal weather to polarizing court decisions, to high gas and food prices, and as our Covid outbreaks and isolation continue, we further loosen already frayed bonds of community with others.
So today, I share a July 4th cake that might not subdue the chaos around us, but it is a delicious distraction.
And the recipe is timely, too, because exactly a century ago a historic Virginia house was in need of repairs and a treasured cake recipe found in the attic saved the day. Don’t know about you, but I love a good lost and found story.
Yes, it pays to clean out the attic.
Kenmore was the home of Betty Washington Lewis, sister to George Washington, and daughter of Mary Ball Washington, known for her gingerbread served to distinguished guests including the Marquis de Lafayette in the late 1780s. Betty continued her mother’s gingerbread legacy at her home in Fredericksburg.
But time marched on, and the family gingerbread recipe was forgotten. Kenmore was deteriorating, and the Kenmore Association and Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) needed $30,000 for its repairs and restoration. While sorting through those boxes, DAR volunteers Emily Fleming and Annie Smith found a hand-written diary containing Mary Ball Washington’s gingerbread recipe.
They typed the recipe and sold it to tourists at Kenmore, and they sold the recipe to the Hills Brothers Company of New York, who packaged the gingerbread as Dromedary Gingerbread Mix, donating a portion of proceeds to the DAR to benefit Kenmore restorations. I grew up on Dromedary mix, and my mother was a member of the DAR, but I doubt she ever knew we were saving the house when she baked us gingerbread.
Which brings me to this idea that gingerbread is our most American of cakes, more so than those cakes decorated to look like our flag. It influenced the Louisiana syrup cake, the jam cake so popular in the Midwest and in the South, and George Washington Carver’s peanut spice cake. Carver was a botanist and child of a Missouri slave who wanted to improve the diet and health of rural black families and show them a way to be self-reliant by growing peanuts. He wrote agricultural bulletins, spoke to church and civic groups, and addressed the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee. Carver’s gingerbread was made with lard and baked in a dripping pan.
Gingerbread, molasses, the triangle of trade, and revolution.
Gingerbread has roots in the great spice cakes of Europe. It was the first cake baked in America and rose light and airy thanks to leavening agents like saleratus, and later baking soda, pearlash, and baking powder. In fact, its spices masked the bitter flavor of those early leavening inventions.
And for sweetening, gingerbread needed molasses—the inexpensive byproduct of making white refined sugar and the most commonly used sweetener in early American cooking. (Or cane syrup was a good substitute if you were in a sugar-cane growing region, or sorghum, honey, or maple syrup if that’s what you had.) Even when white sugar became more affordable, Quakers and other abolitionists opposed its connection to the African slave trade and sweetened with molasses.
Molasses also could be distilled into rum. According to the Massachusetts Historical Society, England’s Sugar Islands (Barbados and Jamaica) experienced a huge demand for white sugar from European colonizers. So in a triangle of trade, New England rum went to West Africa and Europe, West African slaves came to the Sugar Islands, then Sugar Islands' molasses was shipped to New England rum distilleries.
When French molasses from Martinique became less expensive for American colonists to purchase to make rum and cook with, England sought a molasses monopoly, imposing a tax on molasses coming from foreign colonies with the Molasses Act of 1733.
It created fear in the colonies relying on the rum trade and for those colonists accustomed to drinking all the rum they liked. (Just before the Revolutionary War, the average colonist consumed four gallons of rum per year, nearly twice as much alcohol as is consumed per capita today.)
At first the colonists protested and then they just ignored the Molasses Act, smuggling in French and Spanish molasses to avoid taxation. But the English fought back with the Sugar Act of 1764, imposing new duties on sugar and molasses from non-British colonies, plus permission to seize the cargo of violators. Taxation without representation became the plight of the colonists and created the beginnings of the American Revolution.
Why gingerbread matters today.
Gingerbread isn’t as much for dignitaries as it is a quick cake to feed the family. And we don’t bake it to soothe queasy stomachs like people used to, or even bake it to sway elections like once done in West Virginia. Can you imagine gingerbread being more persuasive in the political process today than a nice fat check to your reelection campaign?
Gingerbread can be thrown together with pantry staples. It is a humble cake of equality. Has integrity. Feeds people. And it’s unadorned, so un-Kardashian.
It is a cake that can stand on its own, that doesn’t need fuss and is best served warm straight-up from the pan.
Outside are heat waves, dissent, droughts, wildfires, shootings, and rising sea levels, and a helpless feeling could sweep over me. But inside? I’m ready to bake some gingerbread and pile on cool vanilla ice cream. That’s the kind of American kitchen-table cake I’m hungry for right now.
- xo, Anne
P.S. Save some vanilla ice cream. Coming tomorrow in Between the Layers: Cobbler!
Mary Ball Washington Gingerbread
To taste the cake that saved the house, you’ve got to bake it for yourself. You’ll love the bit of orange along with the spices. It is also referred to as Lafayette Gingerbread.
Makes: 16 to 20 servings
Prep: 25 minutes
Bake: 35 to 40 minutes
Butter for prepping the pan
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground mace
1 large orange
½ cup (1 stick) lightly salted butter, at room temperature
½ cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 cup molasses
½ cup milk, warmed
1 wine glass (2 ounces) brandy or coffee
3 large eggs, beaten
1 cup seedless white raisins
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F, and place a rack in the center of the oven. Lightly grease a 13- by 9-inch metal baking pan with the butter and set it aside.
2. Sift the flour into a large mixing bowl. Stir in the ginger, cream of tartar, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, and mace, and set the bowl aside.
3. Grate the zest of the orange into a small bowl and set aside. Cut the orange in half and squeeze the juice into the same bowl with the zest – you should have 4 tablespoons.
4. Place the butter in a large mixing bowl and beat with a wooden spoon until it is creamy. Add the brown sugar and molasses, and stir and beat with the spoon until mixture is smooth, 1 to 2 minutes. Fold in the flour mixture along with the milk, brandy, beaten eggs, and the orange juice and zest. Beat until the mixture is smooth and thickened, 2 minutes. Fold in the raisins.
5. Turn the batter into the prepared pan, and place the pan in the oven. Bake until the top springs back when lightly pressed with a finger, 35 to 40 minutes. Let the gingerbread cool in the pan 15 minutes, then slice and serve with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.
Your recipes go from strength to strength. With the world as it is you really bring joy .Thank you.Julie
Your post was a wonderful "slice" of our history and heritage. Thank you for sharing with us.