As I mentioned previously, I recently heard about the book American Cake: From Colonial Gingerbread to Classic Layer from my favorite podcast Stuff You Missed in History Class. The book discusses the history of cake in the United States and also provides recipes for some of the most iconic cakes from different time periods. I loved this book as it really provides historical context in addition to the recipes. I learned all about the flours, sweeteners, leavening agents and ovens used throughout American History, (Let me just say that I’m glad I didn’t live in the time period when they used pearlash as a leavening agent…)
Originally I was going to bake my way through the whole book; however, at one cake per week, that would take me a LONG time… like 3-5 years. So I decided to select a few representative recipes from each of the time periods and my mom is joining me on the baking quest!
First up, is 1650 -1799 – early American history through basically the founding of the United States. This was the time period when baking really began in what is now the United States. According to Byrn, the first cakes baked in America were “sweet, yeasty, breadlike cakes and fruitcakes, British poundcakes, cheesecakes, sponge cakes, and a molasses ginger cake.: The American Gingerbread Cake definitely fits into the last of those categories.
This recipe originated in the first American cookbook written by Amelia Simmons in 1796; however, since those recipes – of which there were seven different versions of gingerbread – won’t really work for modern cooks and tastes. Byrn adapted several of the recipes to create a singular American Gingerbread cake recipe. Gingerbread was often used as stomach settler for sailors and long journeys – while people originally thought that the molasses may have done the stomach-settling, it’s likely that the ginger was more influential!
We felt like since this was one of the iconic first cakes in the United States, this would be a good one to start our baking journey! I won’t include the full recipe here – but I encourage you to check out the book: American Cake by Anne Byrn – and here’s how it turned out…
Overall we really liked this one. You could definitely taste the molasses and the spices… it wasn’t as sweet as our more modern cakes. (Perhaps because there was no frosting…? ) The cake was pretty dense but very moist! I think the American Gingerbread was a successful first cake for our foray into baking through the history of the United States!