Gingerbread Fit for a President

Crowd outside the White House at Andrew Jackson’s inaugural reception, 1829, by artist Robert Cruikshank, Source: Library of Congress

Inaugural ceremonies of the past week inspired me to read more about the inauguration of George Washington, America’s first President, in 1789. It took place at Federal Hall in New York City, as the U.S. Capitol and the White House had yet to be built. Instead of hosting an elaborate inaugural luncheon, Washington simply ate by himself because his wife, Martha, had not yet arrived in New York.

Since then, presidents have celebrated with intimate gatherings to elaborate receptions. Representing the extremes, Andrew Jackson in 1829 received a crowd at the White House for ice cream, cakes, and lemonade that swelled to an unruly 20,000 and had to be lured outside with tubs of spiked punch. Jimmy Carter in 1977 served peanuts and pretzels. President Joe Biden cancelled this year’s traditional luncheon at the Capitol because of the pandemic.

To make something suitable for this historic week, I went to the website of Mount Vernon, the historic home of George Washington, now a museum. This recipe from George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, was adapted by culinary historian Nancy Carter Crump and posted on the site. It was named after Marquis de Lafayette, a French general who helped the U.S. win the Revolutionary War.

Since this recipe does not call for baking powder or baking soda (not yet in use in the 18th century), the gingerbread has a heavy texture but the orange juice and zest liven up up its flavor. I’m starting the next four years with a nod to history.

Mary Ball Washington’s “Lafayette” Gingerbread (1783)

Makes 16 squares of gingerbread

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons packed dark brown sugar

1 cup molasses

Scant 2 3/4 cups sifted all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

2 large eggs, plus 2 large egg whites, lightly beaten

1/4 cup fresh orange juice

1 tablespoon freshly grated orange zest

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter a 9-inch-square cake pan.
  2. In the bowl of an electric mixer, or in a large bowl beating by hand, combine the butter and brown sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Add the molasses, and continue to beat until well combined.
  3. Sift the flour with the ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and allspice.
  4. Alternately add the eggs and flour to the butter mixture, beating very well after each addition.
  5. Add the orange juice and zest, and continue beating for several minutes until the batter is smooth and light.
  6. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 35 to 45 minutes, or until a wooden skewer inserted in the center comes out clean. Set the cake on a rack to cool completely in the pan before slicing.

About heritagerecipebox

I am named after my great-grandmother, who only prepared two dishes, according to anyone who remembers. Somehow I ended up with a cooking gene that I brought with me from Richmond, Virginia to my current home in Boston, Massachusetts. I have worked as a journalist and published three cookbooks plus a memoir and a novel. This blog gives me a chance to share family recipes and other American recipes with a past.
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