The first time I saw it —no pictures, scarcely any directions, almost nothing— I wasn’t even sure if it was a cookie or a cake recipe. But one thing I was sure of; I had to try to make it. Why? Well, because that recipe was none other than the original Emily Dickinson’s gingerbread recipe. And that’s just how it happened.
After a little bit of quite a surprising digging task, I gladly found out about a hitherto unknown facet for me of this charismatic American poet (1830-1886, Amherst, Massachusetts). I discovered, to my delight, that she had a remarkable reputation as a baker in her hometown. During the 19th century, breadmaking was actually considered a common daily task, and Emily Dickinson was no exception. In fact, her ‘Rye and Indian bread’, and her gingerbread were a sight more popular than her very own poetry during her lifetime. Dickinson used to send tarts and candy to her family and friends as a token of affection. Thus, that bountiful baking, that legendary basket full of homemade gingerbread —which she slowly lowered from her bedroom window for the children in the neighbourhood— and her fondness for sharing her recipes with her friends, show a spirit fairly bound to her community rather than the recluse she’s often portrayed as nowadays.
I’m almost sure that the primary reason this recipe is here today, is because it came from a testimony of one of those children who eagerly awaited that basket full of deliciousnesses to come down from that window:
I shall never forget the contents of that basket. It was as like Miss Emily as it could possibly be, and by the same token as unlike anyone else. The basket always contained gingerbread…. It was in the form of long, oval cakes, crisp and brown or yellow and delicately sweet and gummy. The flat tops were hard and shinny and on these a bit of decoration was often added, in the way of a pansy or other small flower.
In the mid 1800’s, success in baking hinged upon a wide range of skills; most of them would be unthinkable nowadays. It was all about the ability to discern certain aspects such as the varieties and quality of the flour, the yeast strength, moisture, temperature and time. Recipes seldom indicated oven temperature or baking times, as each oven worked in a very different way. Besides, there was the question of the sort of firewood burned, wind conditions and the particular requirements of each recipe. Measuring tools didn’t exist as such; every one used any within easy reach; a cup of tea, a glass of wine… Martha, the poet’s niece, used to highlight her aunt’s accuracy when measuring her ingredients: “silver to stir with and glass to measure by”. Isn’t it just beautiful?.
Today’s recipe, Emily Dickinson’s gingerbread, is included, among others, in a little book titled Emily Dickinson, Profile of the Poet as Cook with Selected Recipes (Guides at the Dickinson Homestead, 1976):
The recipe in question, just as it reads in the booklet, goes as follows:
1 quart flour
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup cream
1 tablespoon ginger
1 teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon salt
Make up with molasses (a little more than a cup is about right)
Cream the butter and mix with lightly whipped cream. Sift dry ingredients together and combine with the other ingredients. The dough is stiff and needs to be pressed into whatever pan you choose. A round or small square pan is suitable. Bake at 350 degrees for 20–25 minutes.
As you can see, the poet’s recipe is slightly different from the ones we are used to nowadays. It does not include eggs or sugar. Though it does involve a considerable amount of molasses (so we won’t miss any added sugar) and ginger as the only spice.
Despite the fact that no glaze is mentioned in the original recipe, it is explained indeed in the next recipe of the book (“Glazes” —two different recipes, actually; one for pastry and the other for tarts), that Emily was known to have glazed her gingerbread with one of them. So I have decided to use a simple icing sugar glaze and an embossed floral pattern. I’ve considered that this way it resembles those little treasures that came down from her window in that promising basket.
How did you like today’s post? I hope you enjoyed the story and the gingerbread. I personally think that the outcome is absolutely captivating.
– Emily Dickinson, Profile of the Poet as Cook with Selected Recipes (Guides at the Dickinson Homestead, 1976)
– Emily Dickinson Museum
- 1 quart / 3⅞ cups (500 g) flour
- ½ cup (115 g) unsalted butter
- ½ cup (120 ml) whipping cream
- 1 tablespoon ginger
- 1 teaspoon soda
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 240 ml (1 cup) molasses
- ½ cup (60 g) icing or confectioners’ sugar
- 1 tablespoon (15 ml) water
- In a large bowl sift together the dry ingredients: flour, ginger, baking soda and salt. Set aside.
- In a separate large bowl or in the bowl of our stand mixer, fitted with the paddle attachment beat butter for 1-2 minutes at medium speed until soft and creamy.
- In a separate medium size bowl, lightly whip the cream for 2-3 minutes at medium-high speed until thick and soft but not fully whipped.
- Add partially whipped cream to the creamy butter and mix at medium speed until totally combined.
- Add molasses and mix to fully incorporate.
- Next, add the dry ingredients (point 1) in three batches, mixing at low speed just until incorporated. The dough will be stiff and a little bit tacky, but not sticky.
- Take the dough, pat it with your hands into a smooth, even ball and flatten until you get a 1½ -inch rectangle.
- Wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least for 1 hour (even better, if it's overnight).
- Preheat oven (electric) to 350 degrees F (175ºC) and place the oven rack into the middle position.
- Line a rimmed baking sheet (or a 12 x 18-inch / 30 x 40 cm baking pan) with some parchment paper and set aside.
- Remove the gingerbread dough from the fridge and place it on a work surface between 2 parchment sheets. Roll it into a 12 x 18-inch rectangle with a rolling pin. The top surface must be perfectly even and smooth. If the dough is too cold and difficult to handle right from the fridge, let it sit on the counter at room temperature for 5-10 minutes.
- Dust the top with some flour and roll a texture rolling pin or mat, pressing firmly to leave a perfect pattern. Make sure you don't squash the dough. This step is absolutely optional; you can leave your gingerbread just as it is.
- In case you decided to decorate it with some kind of texture, now cover loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate again for at least 30-40 minutes so that the design does not fade away during baking.
- Place the gingerbread into the lined baking sheet or pan and bake for 15-18 minutes until borders are lightly brown and the centre is settle.
- Remove from the oven and cut it with a small serrated sharp knife into as many portions as you wish (I cut it into 16).
- Place each portion on a cooling rack using a flat spatula and let them cool while you prepare the glaze (if using).
- Using a small whisk, mix icing sugar and water until smooth and lump-free.
- Carefully apply the glaze evenly on the gingerbread top surface with a pastry brush but do not brush, a few gentle taps will do the trick and you'll prevent the pattern from rubbing off.
- Let cool completely on a cooling rack until the glaze is settle.
Store in an airtight container for 2 weeks in a cool place.
- To prevent molasses from sticking to your measuring cup, try to lightly coat the inside with a some vegetal oil; you'll never waste a single drop.
- Alternatively, you can decorate your gingerbread using a cookie cutter or a stamp cookie cutter (you may need to reduce the baking time to 10-12 minutes).
- Also, you can bake your gingerbread as a cake using a medium size loaf pan (about 8x4-inch / 21x11 cm). No refrigeration needed.
- Glazed gingerbread cannot be frozen.
- National gingerbread day: November 21st.