Making Gingerbread the 18th Century Way

Winter is a good time to make gingerbread. The eighteenth century had two kinds: hard or “card” gingerbread, what we call a cookie (or biscuit in the U.K.), and a cake. I recently made the latter for our local Jane Austen group tea in celebration of Jane’s 247th birthday, using the recipe below. It makes our gingerbread look and taste anemic.

Mrs. MacIver’s recipe is strongly flavored, moist and dense. I made half a batch because two and a half pounds of flour would make far more than I needed for an 8 x 8 inch pan. I’ll give the amounts I used and cooking directions after the recipe. Be warned: you’ll need a scale.

At the time this recipe was published, the letter “s” was often represented by something that looks like an “f”. No, I don’t know why. After a while, you get used to it.

And cake pans were not a “thing” yet. Cakes were baked in a frame or hoop. I didn’t have a hoop so I sprayed my pan generously with cooking spray. When the cake was baked and cool, it turned out of the pan easily.

To make fine Gingerbread . Take two pounds and a half of flour ; mix an ounce of beat ginger with it , and half a pound of brown fugar ; cut three quarters of a pound of orange peel and citron not too fmall ; mix all thefe together ; take a mutchkin and a half (1 ½  English pint) of good treacle , and melt it on the fire ; beat five eggs ; wet the flour with the treacle and eggs ; weigh half a pound of fresh butter , Scots weight ; melt it and pour it in amongst your other materials and cast them all well together ; butter a frame , and put it in the oven .

This gingerbread won’t fire without frames . if it rifes in blifters when it is in the oven , fun a fork through it . It makes very fine plain bread without the fruit , with a few caraway feeds . All these cakes must be fired in an oven neither too hot nor too cold . The way to know when the cakes are fired enough , is to run a clean knife down the middle of them ; if the knife comes out dry , they are enough ; if the leaft of it ſticks to the knife , put it into the oven again. Susanna MacIver, Cookery and Pastry, 1783, 1789


Flour: 20 ounces

Brown sugar: 4 oz.

Ginger: ½ oz.

Citron and (candied) orange peel but I used only citron): 6 oz. (the fruit is optional; you can use a few caraway seeds instead)

Treacle: 1 ½ cup (molasses; I used blackstrap molasses)

Eggs: about 3 ½ to 4  oz. of eggs*

Butter: 4 oz.

*Eggs were smaller at the time. The recipe for pound cake called for a pound of eggs, which works out to eggs weighing about 1.33 ounces each. Ten percent of their weight is shell, so allow for that in the total.


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. (176.667 Celsius).

Combine the flour, sugar, ginger, and citron, or caraway seeds if you substitute those).

Melt the butter and let it cool before adding it to the molasses and beaten eggs.

Add the butter/molasses/eggs to the flour mixture and mix them thoroughly. If you have a kitchen maid with a strong arm, she can do it. I used a KitchenAid stand mixer. The batter will be thick.

Spray the 8 x 8 inch pan (or a comparable size) with cooking spray. Dump the batter in and spread it around to fill the pan.

Bake for approximately 30 to 35 minutes. Test with a toothpick or skewer. If it comes out with batter on it, cook a little longer.

Let it cool and turn it out of the pan. Cut in small pieces. It’s quite rich and I liked it a lot.

Published by Kathleen Buckley

Kathleen Buckley writes traditional historical romance (no explicit sex) set in England in the 1740s. The characters are not always aristocrats, not always handsome or beautiful, and sometimes actually work for a living. She avoids ballrooms and tea parties and likes to get her historical details right.

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