Whether pilfered from the cookie jar or bought on Court Day with earned money, ginger cakes are Manny and Swope’s favorite treat in The Peacemakers. Gingerbread cookies and ginger cakes are a popular treat in many households during the holidays. Ginger cakes, however, differ from gingerbread cookies which contain a greater proportion of flour and are crunchy. Ginger cakes have less flour which keeps them soft and cakelike.
Looking at the list of ingredients from my Great-great Aunt Mag’s recipe, it may be difficult to imagine things like lard, sour milk, and baking soda combining to produce something as tasty and filling as a ginger cake. To understand the beauty of this recipe, we need a little history and a little science.
Ingredients* for Aunt Mag (Margaret) Suter’s Ginger Cakes
*Modifications for modern kitchens are included in parentheses below and in the directions.
1 cup brown sugar
1 pint cane molasses
1 pint sour milk or buttermilk
1 cup lard (or butter or margarine)
1 Tbls ground ginger
2 Tbls baking soda—rounded
8 cups of flour, approximately
—too much flour makes the cakes hard)
(1 tsp salt—optional)
1 egg, lightly beaten
(Directions for baking the ginger cakes are set out below in this post.)
First the history
Many of the ingredients in ginger cakes were available or could be produced on a 19th century farm. Farmers raised pigs for their meat and other byproducts, such as lard. Lard could be made by rendering scraps of fresh pork. If you have fried bacon, you have made lard. Winter wheat, planted in the fall and harvested in June, was ground into flour. Sour milk could be obtained by letting fresh milk sit in a warm environment or by adding vinegar, causing the milk to curdle. Butter was produced by rapidly agitating milk rich in cream with a dasher in a wooden or stoneware churn until the butter fat separated from the milk. After the butter was removed, buttermilk remained. Brown sugar, molasses, and ground ginger, all of which supply the robust flavor of the cookie, could be obtained at a general store.
And now the science
Baking soda is a base, while brown sugar, molasses, and sour milk or buttermilk are all acids. When the ingredients are mixed together, a reaction occurs that produces carbon dioxide. The CO2 bubbles up, lifting the batter and causing it to rise. The baked product is a round, flavorful cookie that has a firm exterior and a tender interior.
Ginger cakes and other cookies were stored in a glass or stoneware jar and doled out to eager children as dessert or a treat to tide them over until the next meal. Sneaking an extra ginger cake without being caught was a challenge for a growing boy like Manny, especially if the lid on a stoneware jar was ill-fitting and rattled out an alarm to the keeper of the cookies. In The Peacemakers, Aunt Gin is the baker extraordinaire of ginger cakes and the guardian of the cookie jar.
In Chapter 6 of The Peacemakers, Manny has evidently mastered the art of snitching ginger cakes without rattling the lid. He and Swope are whiling away their free time on a Sunday afternoon in May by sitting in a large oak, which they call the “watching tree,” spying on the surrounding neighborhood. A discussion of the upcoming referendum on secession arises between them
Directions for Aunt Mag (Margaret) Suter’s Ginger Cakes
Cream the sugar and the lard (butter, margarine).
Add the molasses to the mixture.
Sift the flour with the ginger (and salt).
Dissolve the soda in the milk.
Add milk/soda to the sugar/shortening mixture alternately with the flour.
(Chill in the refrigerator until dough is stiff.)
Pat out a portion of the dough on a floured
surface and cut with a cookie cutter.
Place on a greased cookie sheet.
Glaze the tops of the cookies with lightly beaten egg.
Bake at 400°F for 10 minutes.
(The recipe indicates that the dough is soft and requires careful handling when cutting out the cookies. An easier way would be to form the dough into balls and roll ingranulated sugar rather than glaze. Bake at 375°F for 8–10 minutes.)
Listen to an author reading of an excerpt from Chapter 6 recorded during the virtual book launch.
REBECCA SUTER LINDSAY is an American writer and poet. Her poetry, short stories, and historical articles have been published in various journals and anthologies. Undergirding the story is a foundation of information that Lindsay gleaned from family accounts, newspaper records, the National Archives, the Southern Claims Commission, and Mennonite historians.