This post forms part of the JVC Bake off in aid of Comic Relief. You can sponsor all our bakers efforts here.
While completing my PhD at Royal Holloway on the material culture of romantic love between c. 1730 and 1830, I discovered that gingerbread cakes were one of the most popular gifts given from a man to a woman in the early stages of courtship. This inspired me to try and recreate these tasty romantic treats for the JVC bake-off, ably assisted by my fiancé Dex.
Hannah Glasse (1708-70) first published this recipe for gingerbread in her earliest cookbook The Compleat Confectioner (1742), reproducing it in her famous tome The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747). In deference to the Victorian theme of the bake-off I have used a further reprint of Glasse’s recipe in The Complete Confectioner; or, Housekeeper’s Guide (1800) with additions and corrections by Maria Wilson. Wilson has combined Glasse’s recipes with ‘every other work on the subject’ to make ‘the most extensive, and familiar work of the kind every published.’ She may well be right, with the book covering an astounding range of jams, pickles, fruit ices, syllabubs, wines and ciders. The popularity of Glasse was still not spent nearly sixty years after her death, with a further edition of her Art of Cookery published in 1828. In the closing decades of the nineteenth century, a poem in The Manchester Times presented her as the ‘homely dame’ who ‘taught our grannies how to cook.’
Glasse’s recipe for gingerbread cakes contains such an enormous quantity of flour that we had to divide it into two sizeable bowls. It also requires more than a jar of black treacle! We were both struck by how enormous the quantities were compared to modern recipes, with more than a whole bag of flour and an entire nutmeg, which must have been a considerable expense. Nonetheless the absence of eggs means that they would last for weeks in the cupboard (that is, if we hadn’t eaten them all so quickly…)
Glasse’s recipes are famously easy to use, and this one was no exception. We began by rubbing together the butter, flour, sugar, ginger and nutmeg, after which we warmed together the cream and treacle in a saucepan. These two mixtures were then combined to form a stiff dough. While I would love to say that it was incredibly complex and required extensive culinary expertise, in reality it took no time at all!
Since the recipe instructs bakers to use a ‘slack oven’, we decided to bake the cakes at the relatively low temperature of 160oC for around 40 minutes. Before baking, we rolled the dough into large oblong shapes (or ‘thin cakes’) as depicted in contemporary prints such as Francis Wheatley’s Hot Spice Gingerbread (1796). This results in quite a hard cake, showing how the seller outside the Pantheon in William Marshall Craig’s Hot Spiced Gingerbread was able to wave them around so vigorously! It also might explain why hot gingerbread was a particular treat, as the cakes have a softer texture and spicier flavour when they are warm.
The final result is quite bitter (and almost savoury), showing how sweet the modern palate has become. The relatively small quantity of ginger involved in the recipe means that they could almost be called treacle cakes, as this is the dominant flavour. We ate our first batch with some vanilla spiked cream, something I hope Hannah Glasse would have approved of after being one of the first to include vanilla in her recipes in The Art of Cookery.
Dex described the cakes as lighter than imagined but still quite heavy by today’s standards. Despite putting in a large quantity of ginger and an entire nutmeg, this was lost below the flavour of treacle. He gave the cakes an overall score of 8 out of 10. I also scored them with an 8, finding that the dense texture of the cakes made them surprisingly filling. I took one batch into work for my colleagues at Kensington Palace to sample, with people commenting that the unusually savoury taste of the gingerbread brought out the flavour of the spices. The cakes were given an average score of 7.5 out of 10, going down a storm with a cup of tea.
The cakes are incredibly moreish, and once we had adjusted to the spiced savoury flavour we demolished over 50 gingerbread cakes within a week! Now to find my mobile cart and hit the streets of London…
 See Hannah Glasse, The Compleat Confectioner: or, the Whole Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (Dublin, 1742), p. 88 and The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (London, 1747), p. 273.
 Glasse and Maria Wilson, The Complete Confectioner; or, Housekeeper’s Guide (London, 1800), p. viii.
 Poem about Hannah Glasse in The Manchester Times, 15th April 1876, British Newspaper Database.
 Elizabeth David, Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen (1970), p. 57.