Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Last week I blogged about syllabub recipes from my First American Cook Book 1796 reprint. Today I’m going to continue my recipe theme with another recipe, plus some interesting commentary.

(In the following recipe, please note that the spellings as well as divisions of words are exactly as written in the book.)

Molasses Gingerbread.
One table spoon of cinnamon, one spoonful ginger, some coriander or allspice, put to four tea spoons pearlash, dissolved in half pint of water, four pounds flour, one quart molasses, six ounces butter, (if in summer rub in the butter, if in the winter, warm the butter and molasses, and pour to the spaced flour) knead well till stiff, the more the better, the lighter and whiter it will be; bake brisk fifteen minutes; don’t scorch; before it is put in, wash it with whites and sugar beat together.

I love gingerbread, which is why I was drawn to this recipe. What first impressed me were the amounts of ingredients. Who has a bowl big enough for four pounds of flour and one quart of molasses? And what does it mean to bake brisk fifteen minutes? And I'm not sure if these are cookies or bars or cake. I'm assuming cookies becaue of the brisk fifteen minutes.

But what confused me the most was the ingredient, pearlash. Pear lash? I thought, what’s a pear lash?

Silly me. You see, in my mind I pronounced the word wrong. I thought: P-e-a-r   L-a-s-h. But then I looked it up and felt really stupid. It’s P-e-a-r-l   A-s-h.

Ah ha! Seeing the word "ash" made the pieces start falling together.

Pearlash is a purified version of potash. It’s an alkaline compound that reacts with an acidic ingredient such as sour milk, buttermilk or molasses to produce carbon dioxide bubbles, just like yeast. (But you may have noticed that that in this recipe there are no acidic ingredients, so I'm not sure how the pearlash worked making the gingerbread.)

At any rate, Pearlash was used in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Although it was successful as a leavening agent, it left a bitter aftertaste. Eventually pearlash was replaced by saleratus, which is sodium bicarbonate, otherwise known as baking soda.

To make pearlash, you have to have potash, which is made from lye. To make lye, you pass water through a barrel of hardwood ashes over and over until an egg can float on the residue. To make potash, you evaporate lye water until you have a solid. (Or you can make soap by boiling the “lye water” with lard or another fat until it’s thick and harden it into cakes.)

So, there you go. If you're ever in the backwoods somewhere without baking powder, you can make your own leavening agent out of the ashes from the campfire, not to mention soap.


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