Sarah Lohman is a historic gastronomist. She recreates historic recipes as a way to make a personal connection with the past, as well as to inspire her contemporary cooking. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Four Pounds Flour. In this series, Lohman will comb Etsy for items that speak to America’s culinary past.
My mother is a careful baker. I am not. My mother fastidiously uses a knife to level cups of flour and teaspoons of baking soda. I scoop and dump.
It was cookbook author Fannie Farmer, the “Queen of the Level Measurement,” that jumped to mind as I tenderly examined my latest Etsy purchase, a set of three antique measuring spoons. Patented in 1900 because of their unique swivel design, this innovative set of measuring spoons is joined by a rivet at the top. They can be folded up or swung into action with ease, always together and never lost or separated in your kitchen drawers. But it’s their elegant shape that first caught my eye: the bowls curve upward, like miniature ladles. It gives them a playful practicality. And they inspired me to become a more precise measurer — and a better student of Ms. Farmer.
In Farmer’s career as a cooking school teacher, she wrote one of the most influential American cookbooks, The Boston Cooking School Cookbook, which has been both celebrated and criticized for standardizing the American recipe. More reminiscent of a short story than a set of directions, early American recipes were poetic and open to interpretation, often inconsistent, with important steps listed out of order and ingredients measured imprecisely — usually “a tea cup,” “a good amount,” or “to your taste.”
Enter Fannie Farmer. In the first edition of her 1896 cookbook, just four years before my measuring spoons were patented, we see the modern recipe take shape: ingredients are listed first, the instructions are in order, and the measurements are precise. In the introduction to her book, she gives basic instructions for cookery, including the guidelines for measuring : “Correct measurements are absolutely necessary to insure the best results. Good judgment, with experience, has taught some to measure by sight; but the majority need definite guides.”
Compare these recipes for classic soft gingerbread: the first from Farmer, and the second from one of her contemporaries, Dishes and Beverages of the Old South, published in 1913.
“Family Gingerbread,” in comparison, is a jumbled mess. How much is a small cup of lard? How much of each of the spices should I add? But although Farmer was celebrated for bringing science, technique, and standardization to American recipe, many criticize her for taking the art out of baking; her recipes leave no room for interpretation. Some felt that by following a formula, one could never learn to be an expressive and inspired cook.
Farmer says “The mixing and baking of cakes requires more care and judgment than any other branch of cookery.” So as I baked my way through her gingerbread recipe, I carefully measured by scooping spices into my patented measuring spoons and then using a knife to make each teaspoon level. I still managed to spill flour everywhere and, as I was scraping it off my counter back into the bowl, I wondered if I was forever doomed to be a sloppy baker.
But as I worked through the recipe, as reliable and standard a recipe for gingerbread as anyone could write, I was struck by inspiration. I’m not so fond of the taste of molasses, and I noticed some of Farmer’s other recipes used brown sugar instead. Then, it occurred to me that the boiling water — used to melt the butter and sugar — might be more interesting if it was also used to add a layer of flavor. Why not steep a bag of black or herbal tea in the water before mixing it in the butter? Or perhaps simply ginger tea, to give it more depth of gingery goodness.
So in Farmer’s formulas, I did find my inspiration — although I still don’t think either she, or my mother, would approve of my methods.
Gingerbread With Tea
Inspired by “Cambridge Gingerbread” from The Boston Cooking School Cookbook by Fannie M. Farmer, 1896
? cup unsalted butter
? cup boiling water, steeped for three minutes with your favorite tea: black, herbal, or ginger
1 cup light brown sugar
1 egg, beaten
2 ¾ cup flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ginger
¼ teaspoon cloves
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Whisk together dry ingredients. Melt butter in tea, stirring until completely dissolved. Add brown sugar, mix well, then slowly add egg, mixing constantly. Using a sifter, add dry ingredients to wet, stirring well. Bake in a 8 inch square cake pan for 30 minutes, or a loaf pan for 40-60 minutes, or until a tester inserted in the center comes out with a few moist crumbs.