Every year I host a holiday party for my friends, in which we dress up in our finest pajamas, exchange gifts, and laugh as we reminisce about the past year. But most importantly: we eat. Everyone brings something to share, and this year I decided to take reminiscing to the next level by contributing a dessert straight out of history.
The Rodgers Family Papers document the lives and recollections of prominent early U.S. naval officer John Rodgers (1773-1838) and his family. In 1889, Rodgers’s granddaughter Minerva Macomb Peters moved to Germany with her husband, Thomas Willing Peters, when he obtained an appointment in the consular service in Saxony. Tucked in a folder under the “Miscellany” series is a recipe for gingerbread, signed “M.M.P.” and written on German stationery. From the moment I discovered the recipe, I just knew I had to try it. I’m certainly not a baker, but I have watched a couple episodes of The Great British Baking Show: so how hard could it be? If Minerva Macomb Peters could do it in the 1890s, I certainly could in my modern kitchen with all the amenities and resources a budding pâtissière could want at her fingertips.
The first challenge I faced was actually reading the recipe. Handwriting over the past 150 years has changed significantly, and Minerva wrote in a scrawling version of Spencerian script, which has not been taught in schools since the early twentieth century. What started out as a simple transcription task became a division-wide effort. Specialists were consulted, reference librarians were rounded up, and archivists were asked their opinion on just what Minerva meant when she wrote that the batter would “drop… from the spoon.” Drop how, Minerva!? In the end, none of us could quite agree on what she meant, and I hoped it would simply become evident when I got to that step.
Next, I assembled the ingredients. The list looked straightforward enough, but I had no idea what was meant by “thick sour milk.” In the body of the recipe, Minerva writes that “if the milk isn’t pretty sour add to it 2 tea spoons full of vinegar.” Wanting to maintain authenticity, I decided to use buttermilk instead of doctoring low-fat milk with vinegar. However, when two different grocery stores didn’t carry what I needed, I realized I was quite literally going to have to do it the old-fashioned way – by making my own.
Buttermilk is the slightly fermented liquid that is leftover from churning butter. Unfortunately, I had just gotten rid of my antique wooden butter churn, so I had to rely on my stand mixer to do the hard work. The reason buttermilk works in this recipe, and why it calls for vinegar in a pinch, is because of a chemical reaction, which occurs between the acids in the buttermilk or vinegar and the baking soda in the ingredients, that causes the cake to rise. Without it, I would be left with a dense, sunken brick. Because I didn’t have the time or the confidence to ferment the buttermilk I had made, I added vinegar to it anyway, just in case my pasteurized milk was going to thwart my baking chemistry.
Now that I had gathered my ingredients, it was time to assemble them. I creamed the fresh butter and egg yolks with the sugar, spices, buttermilk, and molasses in a large pot “on the back of the stove until it [was] about lukewarm and a nice creamy mass.” Due to local fire regulations, not to mention the terms of my lease, I wasn’t permitted to have a wood or coal-burning stove in my kitchen, so I had to improvise by turning on a back burner on very low heat instead.
Sifting flour is, in theory, a simple task. You shake or scrape flour through a mesh sieve in order to aerate it and break up any clumps, separate out any remaining chaff or bugs that might have infiltrated the flour (unlikely, but still possible, in a modern kitchen), and ensure a fluffier overall result. The reality of sifting flour is that I managed to create my own magical kitchen winter wonderland, with “snow” falling all across the counters, getting in my hair, and streaking across my apron. While I’m happy to report that I didn’t need to worry about bugs like Minerva might have, it was at this point I began to question whether I was really cut out for the baking life, or if I should retire altogether and embrace my new form as the Abominable Snowman.
As I added each cup of flour one by one, the batter began to thicken up, until after about four and a half cups it was thick enough to start to fight back. I still didn’t know how it was supposed to drop from my wooden spoon, but I had to trust the process.
Just before beginning to arm wrestle with the batter on the stove, I had put the separated egg whites into my stand mixer and whipped them to soft peaks. I now folded these in to the batter as gently as I could, trying to get them fully incorporated without squishing out all the air they added to make a nice rise. The batter made enough for me to fill completely a 9×13 inch baking pan, which I had lined with buttered parchment paper as instructed.
I turned my attention back to the recipe for the final step, which told me to “bake for ¾ of an hour in a pretty hot oven.” Forty-five minutes seemed somehow reasonable, but “pretty hot” could have meant anything, and there was no way I was going to let all of my hard work crumble into crusty charred dust by putting it in an oven that was improperly set. So I took a deep breath, made a wild guess, and punched in 375. Once the oven preheated, I crossed my fingers and slid the pan in.
It was the longest forty-five minutes of my life. Every scrap of willpower I had was dedicated to not opening the oven door to peek, terrified that somehow I had made a crucial mistake at some point in the process. Had I been too heavy-handed with the ginger? Perhaps the buttermilk wasn’t sour enough? Should I have beaten the egg whites to stiff peaks, instead of soft?
But the gingerbread came out… perfectly. I was shocked. The top of it had a shiny thin crust, just enough to provide a satisfying resistance, and the crumb itself was airy and spicy and not too sweet. It would be ideal with a cup of tea or hot chocolate, or spread with a little bit of apricot jam. As I stood there with a paper plate and fork in my hands, still covered in flour and surveying the disaster that was my kitchen, I felt like maybe I had managed to make Minerva proud.
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M. M. P. [Minerva Macomb Peters]
1 cup butter
1 ” sugar
1 ” molasses
1 ” thick sour milk
4 to 5 cups flour, measured before sifting
1 teaspoonful soda
1 ½ tablespoons ginger
1 grating of nutmeg
Stir the batter to a cream adding the yolks of the eggs one by one add the sugar, molasses & sour milk – 1 ½ table spoons ginger – if the milk isn’t pretty sour add to it 2 tea spoons full of vinegar – stir this mass on the back of the stove until it is about luke warm and a nice creamy mass then add the soda dissolved in hot water. Sift in flour stirring until you have the batter so stiff that it will just drop in large [blob drowsily] from the spoon add the white of eggs well beaten. and bake ¾ hour in a pretty hot oven (in pans lined with buttered paper
Adapted from Minerva Macomb Peters by Andrea J. Briggs
1 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 cup molasses
1 cup store-bought buttermilk (or low-fat milk with 2 tablespoons white vinegar added)
3 eggs, yolks and whites separated
4½ cups flour, measured before sifting
1 teaspoon baking soda, dissolved in 1 tablespoon hot water
1½ tablespoons ground ginger
1½ teaspoons cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
- Preheat oven to 375º F. Line a 9×13” baking dish with buttered parchment paper.
- In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream butter and sugar together, adding egg yolks one at a time. Then add molasses, milk, and spices, mixing well after each addition, until everything is well incorporated.
- In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites into soft peaks and set aside.
- Transfer batter to a large pot on the stove over very low heat. Stir batter until lukewarm all through and creamy, but not melted. Stir in dissolved baking soda.
- Sift in flour to the batter one cup at a time, stirring continuously until the batter drops from the spoon with a thick, slightly stiff consistency.
- Gently fold the beaten egg whites into the batter.
- Remove pot from heat, and spread batter evenly into lined baking dish. Bake for 35-40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center removes cleanly. Cool for 15 minutes in the pan before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.