The evolution of Gingerbread recipes illustrates the development of British cooking both in terms of both ingredients and equipment, see here.
The following appears in 15th century recipe books. Note that it does not contain any ginger! Honey is an essential ingredient of this time and it is actually formed from bread.
1½ lb honey
¼ tsp each saffron and ground pepper
2½ oz breadcrumbs
½ tsp ground cinnamon
18 small bay leaves
Bring the honey to the boil in a pan with the saffron and pepper. Remove from the heat and stir in the breadcrumbs so as to make a very thick paste. Simmer on an asbestos mat over a low heat for 15-20 minutes until the paste has dried out. Place in a 9×5 inch loaf tin. Smooth over the top and sprinkle with cinnamon. Make 6 trefoils on the top by sticking groups of three bay leaves together at the stalk end with a clove pierced through each group into the surface of the ginger bread. Chill for several days (in a refrigerator nowadays). Serve in small slices.
The old hard style of Gingerbread was known in Edinburgh as Parliament cake. The judges, lawyers and men of Parliament Square would meet for a midday break of whisky, rum or brandy accompanied by a salver of ginger biscuits or parties. Very strongly ginger-flavoured, to match the strong drink, the recipe appears in Meg Dodds (1826). (via Laura Mason and Catherine Brown)
With two pounds of the best flour dried, mix thoroughly one pound of good brown sugar and a quarter pound of ground ginger. Melt a pound of fresh butter, add to it one of treacle, boil this, and pour it on the flour, work up a paste as hot as your hands will bear it, and roll out in very large cakes, the sixth of an inch thick or less; mark it in squares with a knife or paper-cutter, and fire in a slow oven. Separate the squares while soft, and they will soon get crisp.
Note that treacle has already replaced honey and flour the breadcrumbs of older recipes but that no raising agent is employed. This is the type of gingerbread that would be used to make gingerbread men or houses although raising agent would now be employed and golden syrup replaces treacle. The following is Mary Berry’s recipe from Great British Bake Off. You will see the similarities but note also that it contains about half the ginger of the Parliament Cake.
375g/13 oz unsalted butter
300g/10½oz dark muscovado sugar
150g/5½oz golden syrup
900g/2lb plain flour
1 tbsp bicarbonate of soda
2 tbsps ground ginger
Make the mixture as described for Parliament Cake but bake the cut biscuits at 200°C for 7-8 minutes.
Parkin is the northern form of Gingerbread. The name was in use some time before the 1730s, when it was cited in a Halifax (West Yorkshire) court case about stolen oatmeal – one of the defining ingredients. There are many local names and recipes, for example Thar cake, that suggest its origins stem from the Middle Ages and an association with pagan bonfire ceremonies which took place at the end of October. It is still made for Bonfire Night in Yorkshire.
Recipes for Parkin have been modernised over time. Originally it would have been made on a griddle or bakestone but now an oven. In the 1800s Oatmeal became cut half and half with flour, the fat also might now be half lard and half butter. The cake was further lightened with baking powder and, when Golden Syrup came on the market in 1880, it began to be substituted for black treacle.
In Yorkshire and the neighbouring counties Parkin is a soft, sticky sponge that improves with keeping. The name can also relate to the biscuit form found mainly around the Scottish Borders, see Parliament Cake above.
Florence White gives no fewer than eight recipes for Parkin. The following comes from Bolton-le-Moors.
8 oz medium oatmeal
8 oz plain flour
8 oz black treacle
¼ tsp nutmeg
¼ tsp mace
½ tsp ground ginger
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tablespoon cream
½ tsp salt
Mix the oatmeal, flour and salt in a mixing bowl. Rub the butter into them.
Mix together the spices and baking powder.
Warm the treacle and cream and use to blend all the dry ingredients together. Leave all night.
The next day, bake in a flat dripping tin in a moderate oven for 1 to 1¼ hours. Some people add candied peel, which should be very finely chopped. This Parkin will keep a long time, and improves with keeping, but should NOT be kept in a tin or it will get dry.
In the 17th century white gingerbreads became fashionable in the East Midlands, the best known being from Ashbourne in Derbyshire and Grantham in Lincolnshire, the key difference being the presence of eggs in the latter. Both are pale in colour and domed in shape.
10 oz plain flour
8 oz butter
5 oz caster sugar
2 level tsps ground ginger
Pinch of salt
2 oz finely chopped candied peel
Cream together the butter and sugar. Mix the spices and salt with the flour and stir into the creamed mixture. When smooth, add the finely chopped peel.
Press into a Swiss roll tin and bake at 180°C for 20-25 minutes taking care that the mixture does not turn more than lightly brown. The traditional shape of these biscuits is an elongated hexagon but rectangles of about 4×6 cm will suffice.
The style of Gingerbread sold to travellers as their stage coach, and later, train, arrived in Ormskirk was a round, crisp biscuit about 6 cm in diameter. It is still made commercially and, although that recipe is a trade secret, several recipes have been published before along these lines:
8 oz butter
8 oz soft brown sugar
4 oz golden syrup
4 oz black treacle
¼ oz ground ginger
1 oz grated lemon peel
1¾ lbs plain flour
Cream together the butter and sugar.
Melt together the syrup and treacle then work these into the creamed mixture.
Add the spices to the flour together with the grated lemon peel and fold through the mixture until evenly combined.
Roll out to 5mm thick. Cut into rounds of approximately 6 cm in diameter.
Bake at 170°C for 25 minutes, turning out the oven for the last 5 of these. Leave to cool on a rack.
Although the name harks back to the oldest form of Gingerbread, the biscuit recipe below is more modern with raising agents being a significant ingredient. These have been made commercially by Furniss of Truro since 1886 although their recipe is a trade secret.
A rough, irregular surface is a distinguishing feature and, containing raising agent, they are left to spread creating a less precise round somewhat thicker, and therefore less crisp, biscuit than the Ormskirk type above.
8 oz plain flour
½ tsp salt
2 level tsps baking powder
2 level tsps bicarbonate soda
3 level tsps ground ginger
2 level tsps mixed spice
1 level tsp cinnamon
4 oz butter
4 oz caster sugar
4 tbsps golden syrup
Sieve together the dry ingredients then rub in the butter (as you would for pastry). Stir in the sugar. Heat the syrup gently and then pour in sufficient to bind the mixture, which will be fairly stiff.
With floured hands, take walnut sized pieces of the mixture, roll into a ball and place on a greased baking sheet. Cook in a hot oven (200°C) for 5-7 minutes or until the biscuits are beginning to brown then turn out the heat and leave to cook for a further 5 minutes.
Leave to cool on the baking sheet for a couple of minutes before transferring to a rack to cool completely.
Pear and Ginger Upside Down Cake
With the exception of Parkin, the above recipes are all for the biscuit style of gingerbread. I have, however, given the recipe before for my favourite ginger pudding, so the link is here.