Connected \\ December 15, 2022

Historic Holiday Recipes: Recreating 200-Year-Old Gingerbread

Sally Fiske Ropes Orne’s kitchen must have been the place to be for holiday baking. Her handwritten recipe books overflow with notes on plum cake, apple custard pie, lemon pudding, pound cake and biscuits – and at least four recipes for gingerbread. Some of them include the name of the person who shared them with Sally: “Mrs. Tucker,” and “Mother Orne,” who was likely an older relative of Sally’s or her husband Joseph’s. But what did gingerbread taste like in the days before temperature-controlled ovens, cookie decorating kits or affordable sugar?

This holiday season, you can recreate a nearly 200-year-old recipe at home.

A portrait of a woman in a ruffled bonnet, Sally Fiske Ropes Orne, beside a photo of a columned mansion covered in snow

LEFT: Ropes Mansion in the snow. Photo by Walter Silver/PEM. RIGHT: Abel Nichols, Mrs. Joseph Orne (Sally Fiske Ropes)(1795-1876). Oil on canvas. Ropes Mansion Collection. Gift of the Trustees of the Ropes Memorial, 1989. R747.

Sally Fiske Ropes was born in 1795 and lived much of her life in the Ropes mansion at 318 Essex Street. She was the aunt of the three Ropes sisters who renovated the mansion in 1894, adding many of its current recognizable features. The Phillips Library holds a treasure trove of her and her family’s recipe books, letters and other personal papers.

While it’s impossible to pinpoint the exact year her gingerbread recipe was cooked up, it was likely baked and enjoyed from the time Sally and Joseph Orne married in 1817 through at least the 1840s. The same notebook includes Sally’s Thanksgiving menu for 1850. (Besides turkey and sweet potatoes, the Ornes served chicken pie and a beef tongue “garnished with fried oysters.”) The gingerbread recipe could also be an older family favorite from the 18th century.

A handwritten recipe for gingerbread.

Sally Fiske Ropes Orne’s recipe book (1795-1876). Orne, Sally Ropes, Recipe book, 19th-century, Ropes Family papers, MSS 190, box 10, folder 6. Courtesy of Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Rowley, MA.

By the mid-1800s, many wealthy families like the Ornes had adopted free-standing wood- or coal-burning stoves. Sally, however, reportedly enjoyed cooking in the home’s original 18th-century kitchen well into the 1870s. While there are no surviving photos, that setup would have likely included a walk-in fireplace with a metal crane for hanging pots and a brick bake oven with an opening in the wall. By carefully moving around hot coals and keeping an eye on fluctuating temperatures, an 18th-century cook could bake, roast, saute, boil, fry, and toast – sometimes all at once.

Sally’s kitchen disappeared when her three nieces renovated the home, turning the kitchen into what is now the dining room. The Ropes Mansion kitchen is currently set up to reflect a high-tech cook’s workshop from 1894, with a gleaming Magee Grand stove the size of a small motorcycle.

A view of the Ropes mansion kitchen, showing a large old-fashioned stove and wooden table.

The Ropes Mansion kitchen. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

In both Sally’s day and the 1890s, much of the family’s cooking would have been accomplished by paid domestic workers. But who grew and processed the crops that would later turn into their ingredients?

Massachusetts abolished slavery in the 1780s, but continued to benefit from enslaved people’s labor economically throughout the early 1800s. Sugar cane, for example, was raised, harvested and processed almost exclusively by enslaved workers. That work was often backbreaking and dangerous: First, the heavy cane had to be chopped, hauled away and ground in a mill. Then, kettles boiled 24 hours a day to refine the freshly harvested crop before it fermented. The process was notorious for high rates of injury and exhaustion.

Abolitionists during Sally’s time advocated for boycotting West Indian sugar and using sorghum as a sweetener instead. But molasses – the dark syrup left after refining sugar cane – remained cheap and popular throughout the 1800s, while white sugar was still a premium product. Molasses was shipped to Massachusetts at a rate of millions of gallons per year to fuel booming rum production in towns like Salem and Medford. It was also a lucrative choice for smugglers thanks to steep taxes on each barrel.

Molasses pouring from a jar into a bowl of flour, butter, baking soda and ginger.

Assembling the ingredients. Photo by Meg Boeni

Sugar still has a dark side. Poor working conditions, child labor and low pay are common in sugar cane production, making it a key target for fair trade efforts alongside coffee, chocolate and bananas.

But some of Sally’s gingerbread ingredients pose a different problem: They no longer exist.

“Pearl ash” and “salaeratus” appear in several dishes in the Ropes family recipe book. Salaeratus was a commercially available leavener employed by home cooks before the invention of baking powder. Pearl ash took more work: First, water was mixed with the ashes left after burning hardwood to make a caustic lye solution. Then, the lye water was burned off or evaporated, leaving potash. Finally, potash was burned at high temperatures until the white salt or “pearls” could be picked out and salvaged for baking.

Native Americans baked with a version of this product known as soda ash for centuries before European contact, and likely taught the process to English colonizers sometime in the 17th or 18th century.

Pearl ash is activated by a mildly acidic ingredient such as sour milk, apple cider or molasses. The resulting chemical reaction helps cakes and cookies rise, but it leaves a bitter flavor – making ginger a common candidate for hiding the taste.

Besides butter for lard and baking soda for pearl ash, the only substitution made here is apple cider vinegar for apple cider. All three are simply for a modern cook’s convenience. (I didn’t want to sift through ashes, either.)

The original recipe also calls for three pints of molasses, two and half pounds of butter, a “teacup full” of ginger and a whopping nine pounds of flour. That’s roughly 31 ½ cups! Joseph Orne was one of six children, so Mother Orne may have been trying to fortify a large family with her gingerbread. Our adaptation is sized for modern kitchens, but feel free to double or triple it.

Mother Orne’s Gingerbread recipe yields a dense, spicy cookie with a smooth surface and crispy edges. For a moister, sweeter version that tastes more like the 21st-century treats you might be used to, try “PEM’s Holiday Gingerbread.”

A stack of fresh gingerbread cookies on a wooden cutting board.

Photo by Meg Boeni.

Mother Orne’s Gingerbread (Based on a recipe recorded by Sally Fiske Ropes Orne). Makes about two dozen cookies

3 ½ c flour
¾ c butter, softened
⅔ c molasses
2 Tb milk
1 Tb ground ginger
½ tsp baking soda
1 tsp apple cider vinegar

Using your fingers or a pastry blender, rub the butter into the flour until fine crumbs form. Add the molasses, milk, ginger, baking soda and vinegar; stir gently until blended into a smooth dough (you may still see some flecks of butter). Chill the dough in the refrigerator for one hour.

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Roll out the dough ¼” thick and cut shapes with a cookie cutter, or roll into walnut-sized balls and press with the bottom of a buttered drinking glass. Bake for 15-18 minutes, or until the cookies spring back when gently pressed with a fingertip.

Tip: Before you measure the molasses, grease the measuring cup with oil or butter to help it all slide into the bowl.

Ingredients lined up for making gingerbread: a canister of flour, a plate of butter, a bottle of milk, a jar of molasses, ginger and a wooden spoon.

Photo by Meg Boeni

PEM’s Holiday Gingerbread

3 ½ c flour
¾ c butter, softened
½ c molasses
⅓ c dark brown sugar
2 Tb milk
1 egg
4 tsp ground ginger
1 ½ tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp nutmeg
⅛ tsp cloves
⅛ tsp salt
½ tsp baking soda

In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and salt. Set aside.

In a separate large bowl, beat the butter and sugar by hand (or using a mixer on medium speed) until light and fluffy. Add the molasses, egg and milk; beat until smooth. Add the dry ingredients, and stir just until combined into a smooth dough. Chill the dough in the refrigerator for one hour.

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Roll out the dough ¼” thick and cut shapes with a cookie cutter, or roll into walnut-sized balls and press with the bottom of a buttered drinking glass. Bake for 15-18 minutes, or until the cookies spring back when gently pressed with a fingertip.

Did you test Sally’s recipe? Tag us @peabodyessex if you share your gingerbread creations on Instagram or TikTok!

This holiday season, we have gingerbread on the brain in every way. Have you seen our snowy village scene at 179 Essex Street in Salem? It’s filled with staff crafted gingerbread houses.

Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM

To learn more about the world of Salem in the early 1800s, check out this cautionary tale from 1835 about demons distilling molasses into rum. It was written to support the Temperance movement, but now it’s the namesake for local distiller Deacon Giles.

Special thanks to Curator Paula Richter and Assistant Reference Librarian Meaghan Wright for their contributions to this post.

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