Medieval gingerbread, a spiced honey confection, was a popular treat that has been closely associated with Christmas for centuries! To learn more about what a medieval Christmas celebration was like, read my previous post: Christmas in the Middle Ages.
This recipe from the 15th century Harleian manuscript is one of my personal favorites. I find it especially interesting that it is called “gingerbread” and it doesn’t actually contain ginger!
Other period recipes like this one from Curye on Inglish do contain ginger:
To make gingerbrede. Take goode honye & clarefie it on þe fere, & take fayre paynemayn or wastel brede & grate it, & caste it into þe boylenge hony, & stere it well togyder faste with a sklyse þat it bren not to þe vessell. & þanne take it doun and put þerin ginger, longe pepere & saundres, & tempere it vp with þin handes; & than put hem to a flatt boyste & strawe þereon suger & pick þerin clowes rounde aboute by þe egge and in þe mydes yf it plece you &c.
– From Curye on Inglish (14th century) edited by Constance B. Hieatt and Sharon Butler.
Hieatt and Butler seem to think that our ginger-less Harleian recipe below is a result of an absent-minded scribe’s error. Not everyone agrees, but I certainly do. I suppose we’ll never know for sure but you may choose to add ginger to the recipe like I did or leave it out. Why not try it both ways?
From Two Fifteenth Century Cookbooks (1888)– Harleian MS 279
(Page 35) .iiij. Gyngerbrede.–Take a quart of hony, & sethe it, & skeme it clene; take Safroun, pouder Pepir, & throw ther-on; take grayted Bred, & make it so chargeaunt that it wol be y-lechyd; then take pouder Canelle, & straw ther-on y-now; then make yt square, lyke as thou wolt leche yt; take when thou lechyst hyt, an caste Box leves a-bouyn, y-stykyd ther-on, on clowys. And if thou wolt haue it Red, coloure it with Saunderys y-now
Gingerbread- Take a quart of honey and boil it, and skim it clean; take Saffron, powdered pepper, & throw thereon; take grated bread, & make it so stiff that it will be leched (sliced); then take cinnamon & strew on enough; then make it square, like thou will slice it; take when thou slice it, and cast box leaves above, and stuck on with cloves. And if thou would like it Red, color it with enough sandalwood.
- 340 g. honey (or approx. 1 cup)
- 1 ¾ c. plain breadcrumbs
- 1/8 – ¼ tsp. White pepper
- 1 tsp. Ginger (optional)
- 1 tsp. Cinnamon
- Pinch saffron (optional)
Step ONE: Honey and Spices
Take a quart of honey and boil it, and skim it clean; take Saffron, powdered pepper, & throw thereon;
Bring honey to a boil and skim the top. Turn the heat down to very low, add spices and mix. I like to add half of the cinnamon at this step and brush the rest on later, but it tastes just as good if you mix it all in now.
The type of honey you use does matter as far as flavor goes. Choose your favorite type of honey because you’ll be using a lot of it.
Step TWO: Dough
“take grated bread, & make it so stiff that it will be leched (sliced);”
Slowly add the breadcrumbs and mix until it becomes firm and well blended. You may need to add more breadcrumbs to reach the desired thickness. Once you can’t easily mix with a spoon and the honey mixture becomes a thick mass, it is ready to roll out.
Note: The “dough” might be crumbly and sticky until it has cooled. This makes kneading very difficult, so once I see the mass forming to the shape of the pan or I can almost squish it together with my spoon I put it on some parchment paper to cool.
Step THREE: Roll and Slice
“then take cinnamon & strew on enough; then make it square, like thou will slice it;”
Roll it out flat onto a baking sheet or other large surface. It will be quite sticky, so either grease the baking sheet well or use parchment paper. I like to roll it out between two sheets of parchment paper before I let it cool completely.
The parchment paper will stick to the gingerbread as it dries, so I suggest flipping the rolled out gingerbread and replacing both pieces of paper at some point during the cooling process. If you didn’t add cinnamon in step one, now is the time to sprinkle it over the flattened dough and try to spread or brush it around evenly, as a sort of coating.
Once it has cooled completely, slice into squares. The pieces can be as large or as thick as you would like, but I tend to make smallish pieces for a better flavor and spiciness ratio. You could also roll into balls or push into a mould, but you’ll have better results if you do that when the dough is still slightly warm.
Step FOUR: Garnish
“take when thou slice it, and cast box leaves above, and stuck on with cloves.”
Stick a clove in the square to garnish. If you really want to put some boxwood leaves on there be warned that they are poisonous. You won’t be ingesting the leaves, but I still wouldn’t advise you to put them anywhere near your food.
Note: This should be self-explanatory but remove the clove before eating!
Optional Step: Turn it Red
And if thou would like it Red, color it with enough sandalwood.
If you want to color the gingerbread red, coat it with powdered sandalwood. Edible sandalwood can be difficult to find and it will alter the taste. Sandalwood was the most common 15th century method of coloring foods red.
I generally avoid modernizing whenever I can, but we now have an abundance of food dyes available to us that don’t affect the taste. If you don’t want to use sandalwood add some drops of red dye to the honey in step one.
I absolutely love this recipe. It is nothing like modern gingerbread, but it’s one of those treats that I just can’t stop eating. It only takes about 25 minutes to make from start to finish.
I do like my spices strong and ginger-y but if you want to use less, you do that. This is a very easy recipe to personalize to taste. If you prefer a mild level of spicy heat, start with the smallest measurement of pepper and build up from there.
A Final Note About Ginger
Ginger was a very popular spice in medieval Europe, second only to pepper. When you compare the average prices per pound between the six most popular or sought-after spices (ginger, sugar, pepper, cinnamon, cloves and saffron) it was also the least expensive. Cinnamon was roughly twice as much as ginger. Saffron was 15 times more expensive, making it inaccessible to all but the very rich. Ginger was also prized for its medicinal properties and used to treat a variety of ailments, from flatulence to the common cold. (Source: University of Toronto). A perfect spice for the cold winter months.
If you want to read a bit more history on ginger and how gingerbread went from basically this honey candy to a fluffy baked modern cookie, check out New York Gingerbread, 1899.