Turn to page 121 of the Practical Cook Book, published in Newberg, Oregon, in 1912, and you’ll find not one, not two, not three, but four recipes for gingerbread.
Variations on a dish aren’t uncommon in turn-of-the-century community cookbooks preserved in the Oregon Historical Society Research Library’s collections. For example, The Alpha Club Cookbook, published in Baker City in 1904, includes five recipes for sponge cake and three for macaroni and cheese. The Web-Foot Cook Book, published in Portland in 1885, includes two takes on boiled ham, which, to my biased modern taste, seems like one more than necessary.
Confronted with myriad options, however, it’s only natural to wonder which one is best. On the surface, the four gingerbread recipes in the Practical Cook Book seem much alike; after all, three of them are called “Soft Gingerbread.” (The fourth, a bit smugly, is dubbed “Choice Gingerbread.”) But there’s nothing beyond surface level to scrutinize, because the recipes are all ingredients and no instructions. All four use baking soda as the leavener, and most call for the soda to be dissolved in hot water before it’s added to the batter. Three recipes employ butter as the fat; all, obviously, include ginger and molasses. The ingredient proportions vary, especially the amount of flour, but all the recipes appeared to produce a gingerbread cake, rather than a cookie. How different could they be, really? As gingerbread season rolled around, that question became too tantalizing to resist — and so I and three of my colleagues made them all.
We began our taste-off by divvying up the recipes. Helen Fedchak, Curator of Museum Collections, took the first recipe, which Mrs. J.T. Smith contributed to the cookbook. Museum Cataloger Silvie Andrews took the second, by Edna Marie Metcalf, and Collections Management Librarian Dana Miller took the third, by Anna H. Blair. I took the fourth, by a Mrs. Ewing, which no one was eager to claim because we were all suspicious of shortening (no, we did not have a good reason).
We wanted to be somewhat scientific about our taste test, and there was pandemic safety to consider. We decided to conduct our tasting via Zoom, and we offered cake and a vote to Digital Services Librarian Laura Cray if she would help us do the tasting semi-anonymously. Laura randomly assigned each baker a letter from A to D, and then, on an appointed day, we left individually wrapped portions of our respective cakes, labeled only with our assigned letters, at our office for the others to pick up.
So, how different could the recipes really be? Very, it turns out. Upon unwrapping and tasting our samples, we discovered that they varied in almost every way: color, flavor, texture, even height. Our verdict, however, was that one recipe did rule them all.
Before I divulge the results, choose your own adventure: If you’d like to experience the full drama of our taste test and our vote in real time, without spoilers, watch the recording below. If you can’t bear the suspense, read on. (Thanks especially to our colleagues Sara Hanel and Jay Cosnett for recording and editing our gingerbread conversation.)
We tasted the cakes one by one, from A to D (which, by happenstance, was also color order from lightest to darkest), and paused after each one for a brief discussion of our impressions.
Gingerbread A was easily the tallest; it had a somewhat dense, chewy texture and good molasses flavor, although the ginger wasn’t noticeable.
Gingerbread B was the flattest, with a crispy top; in flavor and texture, it resembled nothing so much as a snappy ginger brownie, and we deemed that a good thing.
Gingerbread C had a much more cake-like texture than the first two, although it was a little dry. While the ginger was lacking, it had a good molasses flavor as well as a hint of something else we couldn’t identify at first, but then concluded was lemon.
Gingerbread D had a much darker color than the others; like Gingerbread C, it had a cakey texture and molasses-forward flavor, though the molasses was stronger than in Gingerbread C, and Gingerbread D lacked the citrus note.
Our tasting complete, we took a roll call vote for our favorite. The vote was unanimous in favor of Gingerbread B, which was revealed to be the Soft Gingerbread recipe by Anna H. Blair, test-baked by Dana. Late votes were also cast by two fortunate spouses who sampled the leftovers. Helen’s husband, Jason Fedchak, joined the majority with a vote for B. Laura’s husband, J.T. Cray, cast the lone dissenting vote for C, which was Mrs. Ewing’s Choice Gingerbread, baked by me. Gingerbread A was Edna Marie Metcalf’s Soft Gingerbread, baked by Silvie, and Gingerbread D was Mrs. J. T. Smith’s Soft Gingerbread, baked by Helen.
What set Blair’s recipe apart was the flavor: it called for more ginger than the other recipes as well as a teaspoon of allspice. After the vote, Dana mentioned that her gingerbread batter had been extremely stiff — so stiff, in fact, that she couldn’t smooth the top after she put it in the pan. She wondered whether melting the butter, rather than leaving it at room temperature, would have produced the cakey texture we’d expected. But Blair’s recipe doesn’t include eggs, which may also have been a factor in the brownie-like density of her cake.
We were admittedly too pleased with the ginger brownie experience to have much interest in whether it was what Anna H. Blair intended. But, as we discussed our baking strategies and theories, we also began to speculate how small alterations, such as more ginger or a different pan or a lower baking temperature, might change the other gingerbreads, too. From these historical templates, we might easily create four new recipes of our own with just a bit of experimentation. While we had begun our gingerbread bake-off as a competition, pitting recipe against recipe, we ended it as a conversation: not only with each other, but also, by extension, with the four women who had contributed these recipes to a community cookbook more than 100 years ago. It’s a conversation that never ends and takes many forms: how to create something good, together.
Should you wish to try your hand at the recipes, too, we present guidance from our baking experiences and pictures of each cake below. Which gingerbread will be your favorite?
There’s only one way to find out.
For those interested in our processes, we’ve written out each recipe and included baking notes — and suggested adjustments — for each recipe. Enjoy!
Gingerbread A: Soft Gingerbread, Edna Marie Metcalf
One cup butter, 1 cup molasses, 1 cup sugar, 1 cup sour milk or buttermilk, 1 teaspoon soda dissolved in boiling water, 1 teaspoon ginger, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 2 eggs. Make cup cake stiffness, using from 4 to 5 cups of flour.
Baker: Silvie Andrews, OHS Museum Cataloger
The first decision that confronted me in this saga was perhaps the most fateful: given a choice of four gingerbread recipes, I chose number 2, a charming little concoction submitted by one Edna Marie Metcalf, whom I can only assume was allergic to ginger. This was surprisingly not evident from her list of ingredients, at least not to me. A more experienced baker might have seen the ratio of four to five cups of flour against a mere teaspoon of ginger and decided against attempting the recipe, but to me, one ingredient list looked very like another.
For instructions on which ingredients to add at what time, how long to bake the cake, and how hot the oven should be, I shamelessly pumped the internet for clues. Various online recipes led me to conclude that I should cream the butter and sugar together first using Ye Olde Electric Mixer, then add the molasses, eggs, and buttermilk, and finally the dry ingredients (again, that’s an amount of flour roughly equaling the weight of $2.50 in pennies, mixed with the faintest dusting of cinnamon and ginger).
Last, I added the boiling water with baking soda (I used a cup and a half of water, based again on my internet-granted intuition). At this point, the batter had attained what I considered to be an appropriate “cup cake stiffness” (your guess is as good as mine, or probably better), so I heated the oven to 350 degrees, greased a nine-inch cake pan with butter, and poured the batter. It was only when I had to go for the second cake pan that I realized that whatever I was making, there was going to be a lot of it. Using the toothpick test, I decided my two cakes were done after about 40 minutes, during which time I watched with growing horror as they swelled higher and higher. How disappointing that the flavor did not match the outstanding smell when they came out of the oven.
This cake tasted fantastic when saturated with caramel sauce. Other taste-testers report that it paired well with their morning coffee. All the same, if one felt the urge to try this recipe, I would recommend tripling the amount of ginger and cinnamon, as I’m not sure that even the most sensitive palate could pick out those flavors in the cakes I made.
Gingerbread B: Soft Gingerbread, Anna H. Blair
One and one-half cups sugar, ½ cup Orleans molasses, ½ cup butter, ½ cup sweet milk, 1 teaspoon soda, 1 teaspoon allspice, ½ tablespoon ginger. Mix all together. Add 3 cups sifted flour, bake in shallow pan.
Baker: Dana Miller, OHS Collection Management Librarian
My first thought when I saw this recipe was: Why are there no eggs? It seems like the batter would be a bit too dry and lack lift without them, but I was in it for the experiment, so I left that as it was. I also had to consult with my fellow bakers about sweet milk — it’s simply regular cow’s milk, as opposed to buttermilk or sour milk, so I used whole milk. I made sure my butter was room temperature, but in hindsight, I wonder if it was supposed to be melted. All the other ingredients seem straightforward, but I could not find Orleans or lighter molasses, so I used the blackstrap molasses that I had on hand.
I wasn’t sure which order to mix in, so I started by creaming the butter and sugar together — I tried mixing that together by hand with a whisk, but that was a consummate failure as butter immediately got stuck in my whisk, so I got out my handheld mixer. After the butter and sugar were sufficiently creamed, I added the molasses and then everything else in the order listed, with the flour last.
The batter was the consistency of a frosting, and when I put it in the pan, there was no smoothing out the top. Based on the amount of batter, I thought the safest pan to use was a large rectangular 9 x 13-inch cake pan; mine is Pyrex glass.
I estimated time and temperature based on a typical cake, which is about 30 minutes at 350 degrees. It started to smell good near 20 minutes. At 30 minutes, the edges were starting to look overdone. I tested it with a toothpick in the center and it came out clean, but I think it might have been slightly underbaked.
If I baked this again I would use melted butter and try adding one to two eggs to see if it helped with the lift and would leave it in the oven for another five minutes.
Gingerbread C: Choice Gingerbread, Mrs. Ewing
Half cup brown sugar, scant ½ cup shortening, half cup New Orleans molasses, 1 egg, 1 teaspoon ginger, the grated rind of 1 lemon, and level teaspoon soda dissolved in ½ cup of boiling water, 1 ½ cups flour measured generously.
Baker: Katie Mayer, OHS Technical Services Librarian
I started by staring mournfully at a vat-size container of shortening in the grocery store. Because I had never before baked with shortening and have no plans to do so in future, the container on the shelf was approximately one vat minus one-half cup more shortening than I wanted. OHS Oral History Librarian Sarah Stroman rescued me from my plight, as she had plenty of shortening to spare from her own vat and enlisted her generous husband, Dustin Collins, to deliver it to my doorstep on his lunch break.
Next, I cast around the internet for ideas on the order of operations. Specifically, I wanted to know when to add the baking soda dissolved in boiling water. The internet declined to give me a firm answer, so I decided to add the ingredients in the order they were listed. I used a mixer to cream together the shortening and sugar, then beat in the molasses, then the egg, then the spices and lemon zest (and salt, although the recipe didn’t call for it). I dissolved the soda in boiling water, added it to the batter… and watched in horror as the batter developed a hideous curdled consistency. But I regained confidence when I added the flour and the batter became smooth and fluffy. The recipe was small by volume, so I baked the cake in an 8 x 8-inch square pan. I set the oven at 350 degrees, a typical cake temperature, and took it out after about 40 minutes, when it was fragrant, the edges had pulled away from the pan, and it sprang back when touched.
Were I to bake the gingerbread again, I would increase the amount of ginger and perhaps add some other warm spices (cinnamon, allspice), as well as a darker molasses; I used what I had on hand, which I believe is somewhere between blackstrap and light New Orleans molasses, but I think a sassier molasses flavor would be welcome. I’d add the water and soda last. And I might also bake the cake in a metal pan (mine is ceramic) for quicker heating, and at a lower temperature, as the gingerbread was a bit dry.
Gingerbread D: Soft Gingerbread, Mrs. J.T. Smith
One-half cup sugar, ½ cup butter, 1 cup molasses, 2 ½ cups flour, 1 teaspoon each ginger, cinnamon, and cloves, 2 teaspoons soda in 1 cup boiling water, 2 well beaten eggs added last.
Baker: Helen Fedchak, OHS Curator of Museum Collections
I started off by getting out all my ingredients and realized that I apparently had NO GINGER, which was not an auspicious start. So the first half hour was an emergency ginger run. This was my first time baking using cup measurements for the dry ingredients! I tend to only bake the recipes that came with me from the United Kingdom, where we weigh our ingredients. It made me very nervous, but turned out fine.
I used the same technique that I use for my usual gingerbread — I melted the butter, sugar, and molasses together and added them to the dry ingredients. Then I added the soda dissolved in boiling water. I've never used that technique before, but the mixture was already warm from the molasses mixture, so it seemed like the time to add it! Then I added the beaten eggs, which my recipe had actually specified should be added last.
I made it in a square 8 x 8-inch pan, which is what I would usually do, and baked it for one hour at 325 degrees. I started checking it after 45 minutes, but it did take the full hour.
Katie Mayer’s Other Posts
Let’s Bake a (Historical) Cake
June 9, 2020
Brains, Skill, and Butter: Sample a Feast of History in Century-old Cookbooks
November 26, 2019
A New Face for the OHS Research Library Catalog
July 9, 2019
New Year’s Mail Call
January 1, 2019
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