Most Americans associate champagne and caviar with the New Year, but other traditions pre-date that. The Puritans used to visit each other for tea and cookies on New Year’s Day. New Year’s receptions hosted by women became popular in the 19th century. Well-to-do ladies sent out invitations and asked servants greet visitors with a silver tray for calling cards. Those with less means prepared a table of light snacks and stood ready to receive gentlemen callers. The food has certainly changed since then. An 1889 New Year’s Day menu from The Ladies’ Home Journal called for jellied chicken, boned turkey, pressed tongue, and pickled oysters, along with chocolate with whipped cream and small cakes. The drinks? Egg nog, coffee, and lemonade!
If you yearn for simpler times, try this recipe for gingerbread cakes from American Cookery by Amelia Simmons (1796). I used the adaptation from authors and food historians Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald. The cakes are dry, so be sure to serve them with tea – or sherry. Happy New Year and thanks for following my adventures in historic American recipes on my blog!
Gingerbread Cakes (1796)
Makes about 32 cookies
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 1/2 tablespoons ground ginger
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1 large egg
3/4 teaspoon baking powder dissolved in 2 tablespoons heavy cream
- Preheat the oven to 350º.
- Mix together the flour, nutmeg, and ginger (use a strong variety such as Frontier brand), and set aside.
- Using a mixer, cream the butter and sugar; mix in the egg.
- In a measuring cup, dissolve the baking powder in the cream.
- Add the flour mixture to the creamed butter and sugar, then added in the cream/ baking powder and run the mixer just until the dough comes together. You can also mix the dough by hand; do not overmix. (It will be somewhat dry and crumbly).
- Pinch off pieces of dough and roll into round cakes about 1 inch in diameter. Place them about 2 inches apart on greased or Silpat-lined baking sheets (16 cookies per sheet). Bake until slightly browned on the edges, about 15 minutes.
- Remove from the oven and cool for about 10 minutes before serving. Or let them cool completely and serve plain or with tea.