Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Christmas Past: of Gingerbread and Sugar Plums

This year for the first time in 372 years a total lunar eclipse fell on the winter solstice and it made me think about what Christmas would have been like in 1638 . . . after all it's the memories of Christmas Past that make us look forward to Christmas each year. Being snowed in at the moment I have turned my hand to baking and as every one is home I have a varied assortment of helpers and “tasters” wafting in and out of the kitchen. I have found an interesting old recipe from the 1600s for Gingerbread which uses claret! (If you would like to see some more recipes for Christmas Sweets, Treats and Recipes check out the Wine and Christmas tag on my Blog).


A Manchet (or manchette) is a bread that was small enough to be held in the hand or glove. These were luxury breads which contained ingredients that were only available to the wealthy at the time and were often served at Court. Manchets would sometimes be sweetened by the addition of scented ingredients such as rose water, nutmeg and cinnamon. Here is the recipe in old English:

“Take three stale Manchets, and grate them: dry them, and sift them through a fine sieve: then add one ounce of Ginger being beaten, and as much Cinamon, one ounce of Liquorice and Anniseeds beeing beaten together, and searced, halfe a pound of sugar; then boil all these together in a posnet, with a quart of claret wine, till they come to a stiff paste with often stirring of it; and when it is stiffe, mould it on a table, and so drive it thin, and put it in your moulds: dust your moulds with Cinamon, Ginger, and Liquorice, being mixed together in fine powder. This is your Gingerbread used at the Court, and in all Gentlemens houses at festival times.”

The modern version is:

1 cup of honey
½ tsp powdered ginger
pinch ground cloves
pinch of cinnamon
pinch of ground liquorice
2 cups of dry bread crumbs
1 tbsp of anise seeds

Gently heat the honey and add all the spices except the anise seeds and stir to blend. Add the bread crumbs and mix thoroughly, cover and cook over a medium heat for 15 minutes so that the mixture becomes thick and moist.
Place the Gingerbread on a large sheet of waxed paper. Fold up the sides of the paper and mould the dough into small rectangle shapes. Sprinkle anise seeds on the top and press them gently into the dough with the side of a knife. Cover and refrigerate for 2 hours.

Sugar Plums are another old fashioned treat and there are three trains of thought as to what they actually were. I had never encountered one before and only knew of them via the Sugar Plum Fairy in Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker ballet. Some believe that they were a comfit (which is a confection that contains a seed or a nut that has been coated with several layers of sugar. Caraway seeds were often used because they left the breath sweet). Others believe that they were nuts that were inserted into dried fruits which were then sugared and wrapped in coloured foils. The most popular belief is that they were a small, round treat made from dried fruit and spices, shaped like a small plum.

Sugar Plums

6 oz toasted almonds
4 oz dried plums
4 oz apricots and figs
¼ tsp anise seeds
¼ tsp fennel seeds
¼ tsp caraway seeds
¼ tsp cardamom
¼ cup confectioners sugar
¼ honey
pinch of salt
1 cup sugar

Chop the almonds, dried plums, apricots and figs in a food processor. Toast the anise seeds, fennel seeds and caraway seeds. Add the toasted seeds, cardamom, confectioners sugar, salt, honey in a bowl and mix together. Form into ¼ ounce balls and dry overnight, covered with a towel. After drying, roll the balls in your hand to warm and coat in sugar.

Merry Christmas!


lostpastremembered said...

Funny, I've always wondered about sugar plums and never investigated. Thanks so much for doing th leg work... I love all the ingredients you put into these! Have a wonderful Christmas!!

Pam said...

I had no idea about the sugar plums. Here's wishing you and yours a very Merry Christmas!