Tuesday, February 20, 2007

"My Best Gingerbread"

Dorothy spent her early teens as a slavey in her mother Florence's Baltimore boarding house. Then Florence married Strother Judson Clark, a dashing road builder who sometimes sailed the windy side of finance. This allowed them to make a new home on what Dorothy always, rather grandly, but with a mischievous glint in her eye, called "the north shore of Virginia." I knew that innuendo was present. Just wasn't sure what. Maybe it was insinuation.
Her step daddy, known as SJC, was part of the Clark family that lived on the plantation next to George Washington's Mount Vernon. William Clark, whom Jefferson sent west with Merriweather Lewis, was SJC's great, great, or better, grand relation.
At some point between getting a step-dad and graduating in the, then, new field of Home Economics from what was then called the Virginia Normal or Teacher's College, Dorothy visited Mount Vernon and took note of Martha Washington's 'Receipt Book'. This was the ledger where Martha kept her kitchen records including her recipes. Dorothy came away with one called "My Best Gingerbread."
Lots of people did. Search for 'Martha Washington's gingerbread' to find many, many more.
Gingerbread was a great favorite with the English/Americans of the sixteenth century through the Nineteenth (scroll down for another one from Martha). One speculates that George's famed wooden teeth might be a result of his fondness for gingerbread.
Here's what I found among the shards of Dorothy's recipe box:
"My Best Gingerbread"
By Martha Washington
1/2 Cup sugar
1/2 cup lard
1/2 cup butter
1 egg, beaten
1 cup dark molasses
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ginger
1/2 tsp cloves
1 cup cake flour
Preheat oven to 325-3500f. Cream sugar with lard and butter. Add egg and molasses. Sift dry ingredients and fold in. Bake in a greased pan for 35 minutes.
This doesn't quite suit.* Dorothy makes a variation by adding 1 1/2 cup of flour and a cup of hot water. Flour the pan.

After trying both I made note that 1 extra cup of flour was all that's needed.

Tonight I just cut the molasses to a half cup. This makes a moist not quite sticky gingerbread.

So, is this authentically Martha's Best?

I don't think so. All of the recipes, save one, cited here are in modern measures and use modern ingredients such as baking powder instead of saleratas or wild yeast, or beer for leaven. The spicing is also changed. Ingredients such as dried fruit or buttermilk or sour cream or milk that I would expect to find are not included. Martha's best bolted flour would be very different from the modern instantisedtm, pulveravished, send to infinity - turn it around three times - and bring it back, cake flour.
Dorothy copied a recipe from Martha's book and then set about translating it into something that would work in her kitchen with the ingredients available to her. Its like Del's story of the axe: "It's had three new handles and two new heads, but it's the same god damn axe my great grandfather brought out here on the Oregon Trail."
That to one side, "My Best Gingerbread" lives up to Dorothy's highest approbation: it is very easy to eat.
A very Happy Birthday to the first President of the US!
UPDATE 7/28/2010: *Curiously enough, it does. The trick is in the pan. Put the original recipe in an 8" X 13" pan and it bakes up fine, particularly if you like the Gingerbread gooey and sticky as many do.
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