Notes on collections at the RIHS
Holiday cookie edition of our Cooking (from) the Books series
This recipe for ginger crackers comes from the Congdon family papers, MSS 363. This handwritten recipe book, ca. 1840 includes no fewer than six different gingerbread recipes, some for soft loaf-style gingerbread and others, like this for biscuits or cookie type gingerbread. The recipe book, along with other items from the Congdon collection have been microfilmed as part of the New England Women and their Families microfilm collection available at the RIHS Robinson Research Center.
When our Research Center staff put the call out for other RIHS staff to contribute to their Cooking (from) the Books blog, my first thought was lasagna. I could find a lasagna recipe and compare it to my grandmother’s. I found a recipe in the collections to try, but I soon made the project bigger than intended. I should make the noodles from scratch; I need to find a sauce recipe, etc. Who am I kidding? I hate cooking. So, I went back to the drawing board. I needed to make cookies for our upcoming Holiday Open House event at the Museum of Work and Culture (held last December 2), and I had a squirrel cookie cutter that I bought on a whim last summer, so I thought, “how about ginger snaps?” Research Center Manager Michelle Chiles came through with a number of recipes from our collections.
I at first balked at this old 1840s recipe. If there is an equivalent to a brown thumb in cooking, that’s me. So, a recipe with no instructions… well… There are only five ingredients. How badly could I screw this up? I decided to live on the edge and go for it. My four-year-old daughter enthusiastically joined me. As you see, the recipe calls for three pounds of flour, one pound of sugar, one pound of butter, one pint of molasses, and two tablespoonfuls of ginger. I decided to cheat and use the KitchenAid, which was not available to the folks who followed this recipe in 1840. But, neither was an electric oven. I halved the recipe in order for it to fit in the KitchenAid mixing bowl. (I made the second half later on my own after my daughter went to bed.)
First, I creamed the sugar and the butter (I used salted butter). Then, we added the molasses. Next, we added the ginger. And, finally, we slowly mixed in the flour. The mixture came out crumbly. I took it out of the bowl and kneaded it with my hands. I took part of the dough to try to get it into a ball. But, it was still fairly crumbly. Being the cooking-equivalent-of-a-brown-thumb that I am, I had a minor panic that the dough was too dry. “Do I need to add water?” I thought. While I was scrambling for an answer from Google, another tool my 1840 counterparts didn’t have, my four-year-old, being the voice of reason, said, “Don’t worry mom, it’s still working. See,” as she rolled out the dough with a rolling pin. Good thing I didn’t add the water. The mixture was perfect.
We had a little bit of a tough time rolling the dough evenly without it breaking off and sticking to the rolling pin. My husband came in and helped to work the dough a little, and he demonstrated that it was best to put slight pressure on the middle of the rolling pin rather than use the handles. We finally got the hang of it, and we were rolling…literally. We took a fist-sized ball at a time and rolled it thin. My daughter rolled and cut, and I placed the cookies on a cookie sheet. I opted to use parchment paper. At the advice of a friend, I baked the cookies at 350 degrees for 10 minutes. As soon as they came out, I removed the cookies from the sheet to a cooling rack. We had a little assembly line going for a while. My daughter stuck through it until she dramatically collapsed saying her arms were tired. My husband whisked her away for her bedtime sequence, while I finished the batch and then made the other half-batch. The full recipe made about 120 squirrel-sized cookies.
The cookies were delicious! Tasty and crunchy. I brought them to the Museum of Work and Culture the next day to serve during our Holiday Open House, where they were gobbled up. (And, yes, those are squirrel holiday lights). Is it wrong that I used child labor to make the cookies for a museum that talks about child labor? Not sure. But she and I had fun making and eating this old recipe. I plan to add this to my personal recipe book, and we will make them again.
~ Geralyn Ducady, Director, Newell D. Goff Center for Education and Public Programs