Mary Washington’s 1784 Gingerbread Cake
I’m always on the lookout for Christmas tree ornaments to adorn one of the several theme trees that I decorate each year. I’m a fool for Christmas. In years past, I put up trees in every room in my house including the bathrooms. Some of the rooms had multiple trees. Not all the trees were big, some were tabletop size. Every where you cast your eyes inside my house, you’d see Christmas. All those decorations were wonderful and I loved our house being so festive. Then it came time to take all the decorations down, box them up and store them until the next year. I didn’t like the decorations so much then. Taking them down was a bigger chore than putting them up. And it wasn’t nearly as fun, either.
I’ve become a tad more reasonable about Christmas decorations. The bedrooms and bathrooms no longer get decorated. I still put up several themes trees and have bits of Christmas scattered throughout the house, inside and out. It’s still a lot of work, but I think the results are worth the effort. Sam is good about helping me. We now can enjoy our Christmas decked house without all the grumbling that goes along with the work load of going hog-wild with decorations. Well….there’s still some grumbling, but it’s at a manageable level.
On a trip this past summer to Mount Vernon, George and Martha Washington’s home, I found some charming cookie cutter and gingerbread type ornaments that were perfect for a tree I decorate for the kitchen with vintage cookie cutters and cookie type ornaments. I picked up a couple, or maybe it was 5.
Here’s two of my favorites. Left is a gingerbread Grandmother and right is a Mount Vernon cookie cutter.
When I brought out the new ornaments to put on this year’s cookie cutter tree, I made a delightful discovery. Included with the ornaments was a recipe for Mary Ball Washington’s (George Washington’s mother) Gingerbread Cake from 1784. As much as I love Christmas, I love heritage recipes just as much. I recall being at Colonial Williamsburg and seeing a gingerbread cake that the character actor had cooked in a Dutch oven over an open fire. She said she had made the gingerbread cake for their lunch. I thought at the time how much I would love to have a heritage gingerbread cake recipe. Well, bust my buttons! Not only did I get some new ornaments for one of my favorite trees, I got a great heritage recipe from Mrs. Washington for the gingerbread cake for which I had wished. What a blessing!
This cake isn’t a lazy day, throw together fast, only use one bowl kind of cake. Don’t try to make it when you’re already slap worn out. There’s nothing difficult about it but it has several steps and Mrs. Washington apparently liked to dirty up every single bowl she had in her kitchen. Start with a sink full of soapy water and wash the bowls as you use them. Better yet, recruit spouses and children to help out. If they’re going to eat Mrs. Washington’s cake, they can help you wash up all the bowls Mrs. Washington wants you to use. President Washington would want it that way.
Y’all come see us!
Adapted from Mount Vernon’s Gingerbread – 1784. From Mary Ball Washington, mother of George Washington.
A note on the recipe says that Mrs. Mary Washington served this cake at her home in Fredericksburg, VA and Mrs. Martha Washington also served this cake at Mount Vernon. This must have been one of President Washington’s favorites. I’m going to think that, anyway.
I made a few changes to the original recipe. I substituted cold buttermilk for warm sweet milk. I omitted mace because it’s expensive and that’s not a spice that I ever use. Instead, I added 1/2 teaspoon of ground cloves and increased cinnamon to 2 teaspoons from 1 1/2 teaspoons. The original recipe called for “best brandy or sherry”. I used brandy.
1/2 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1 cup dark molasses
1/2 cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 cup brandy
3 eggs, whisked or beaten well
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 orange, grated zest and juice
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 tablespoons warm water
1 cup seedless raisins
Cream butter and sugar in a mixing BOWL until light and fluffy.
Measure out molasses, buttermilk,, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg and brandy in a BOWL. Add to creamed sugar and butter. Mix well.
Whisk (or beat) eggs till fluffy in a separate BOWL. Sift flour and cream of tartar in another BOWL.
Add eggs and flour, alternately, to the batter. Keep mixer on low until all the eggs and flour is added. Zest and juice an orange in another BOWL. Don’t skimp on the orange. You need every bit of the zest and juice to cuts the richness of molasses. I was fortunate to be able to go out in my backyard and pick a big ol’ fresh navel orange. Add juice and zest. Lightly mix.
From here on out, all the mixing is done by hand. Dissolve baking soda in warm water in another small BOWL or cup. Add to batter and mix by hand. Mix raisins with a small amount of flour in another BOWL. This will keep the raisins from sinking to the bottom of the batter (hopefully).
Add flour coated raisins to batter and stir in by hand. Pour into a greased 9×13 pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 to 45 minutes or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean. Let cool in pan for 10 to 15 minutes. Turn out on a cooling rack. Cool completely before cutting. Mrs. Washington recommended greasing the pan but didn’t say to flour it. I was able to get the gingerbread cake out of the pan without it sticking but I really had to work at it with a rubber spatula. Next time, I will lightly dust the pan with flour.
This cake is better than I ever imagined it would be. It’s worth every BOWL that was used. We don’t typically put raisins, orange zest and orange juice in gingerbread cake today. I’m not sure why that fell out of favor because this has the best flavor of any gingerbread cake I’ve ever had. The raisins and orange give it such a nice fruity flavor that it would be a welcomed alternative to fruitcake. Despite mixing them with flour, more of the raisins sunk to the bottom than I would have liked. Sometimes mixing flour with add-ins works better than other times. If I had a dollop of fresh whipped cream, it’d be sitting right on top of a big square of Mrs. Washington’s Gingerbread Cake. I’ll have to settle for a light sifting of powdered sugar for now.
Fresh Orange Nutmeg Whipped Cream
1 pint whipping cream
2 to 3 tablespoons powdered sugar
1 teaspoon grated orange zest
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Whip cream until soft peaks form. Mix in powdered sugar (according to your taste) , orange zest and vanilla extract. Grate a small amount of nutmeg on each serving.