‘The longer the dough stands the better will be the resultant gingerbread. In the old days it was always a rule to put away the gingerbread sponges early in the spring, and then it would be in prime condition for use about September; but at the present time it would, most probably be deemed ripe in from one to three months. At any rate, give it as long as you possibly can, remembering always the longer the better.’ (Frederick Vine, Saleable Shop Goods, 1898)
The question as to why we stopped maturing gingerbread dough vexed me while I was writing First Catch Your Gingerbread. It may well have been common practice among professional bakers who specialised in gingerbread during the 19th century and earlier but it certainly didn’t appear to be something practiced by domestic cooks in the UK. In a way this is understandable. What home cook wants to make a dough then have to wait for several months before baking a batch of gingerbread?
The reverse is true of continental gingerbreads. It is still fairly easy to find ‘modern’ gingerbread recipes, such as pain d’épice, on the continent which require a period maturation. Françoise Abegg suggests creating a ‘mother dough’ from honey, flour and a little water which is left to mature for six months. After this period a quantity of the ‘mother dough’ is taken and added to more honey, spices, water and a hefty quantity of baking powder (Lise Bésème-Pia, Petit Traité Gourmand du Pain D’épice, 2015). This results in quite a liquid dough which needs to be cooked in a mould and cannot be rolled out.
I have heard people refer to matured gingerbread doughs as being fermented. To me this implies that during the maturation natural yeasts develop. In the days before baking powder this yeast could have helped leaven the dough. I was curious to see whether a fermentation process would occur if the dough were left to its own devices or perhaps given a head start with the addition of some sourdough starter.
Back in early December 2020 I decided to make two batches of gingerbread dough. Method 1 was largely based on Frederick Vine’s Rich Block Gingerbread (so called because the dough would be used to produce moulded gingerbreads stamped on blocks). This uses treacle (although I opted to use an equal mix of treacle and golden syrup) and involves combining all the ingredients (minus the eggs, which I will come back to) then leaving the dough for at least seven days. I also included some sourdough starter to see if this would initiate a fermentation process (this is not recommended by Vine in his original recipe).
For Method 2 I used the same ingredients but replaced the treacle mixture with honey. I used a slightly different technique whereby only half the flour and spices were added to the honey prior to leaving the dough to mature. No starter was added as I wanted to see whether the yeasts would develop naturally.
Both doughs were placed in plastic tubs and kept in the garage for four months. You can read about the results below. In terms of baking both doughs were rolled out to a thickness of 5mm. I used a large cookie cutter to stamp out shapes then baked them at 180℃ for about 12 minutes (smaller biscuits would probably take 8-10 minutes).
Ingredients for Rich Gingerbread Dough
- 50g sourdough starter or 1 tsp baking powder (optional)
- 450g plain flour (I replaced 100g of the flour with 100g rye flour)
- 4 tsp medieval spice mix or 3 tsp ginger and 1 tsp mixed spice
- 100g dark brown sugar
- 100g mixed peel
- 100g butter
- 400g treacle OR honey OR 200g each treacle and golden syrup
- 2 eggs, beaten (method 2 only)
Mix the starter, flour, spices, sugar and mixed peel in a bowl. Gently heat the butter and treacle (or alternatives) so that the butter has melted and the treacle is more fluid. Allow to cool to lukewarm. Add the treacle and butter to the dry ingredients. Store in a cool place for a minimum of 7 days or longer.
The dough remained moist and pliable even after four months and could still be rolled out or moulded without the addition of any further liquid. Although there was a slightly sour aroma to the dough it did not appear to have increased in volume. Given the amount of sugar in the recipe it is perhaps not surprising that the yeast was inhibited. In terms of flavour, the spicing was still as prevalent as it had been seven days after it had been made (after a week of maturation I used some of the dough to make some gingerbread nuts like these ones). It’s hard to say whether the spicing was more intense but there was a hint of acidity in the biscuits. Personally, I’m not sure using a sourdough starter benefited the final product in terms of texture or flavour so would be inclined to omit this next time or replace it with baking powder.
Mix 400g honey (or treacle etc) with 200g flour and the spices. Leave in a cool place for several months. After the maturation period rub the butter into the remaining flour and baking powder (if using). Stir in the sugar and mixed peel then combine this with the ‘fermented’ dough adding enough beaten egg to bring the dough together (although water may have worked just as well).
The surface of the honey based dough was pock marked indicating that perhaps some degree of fermentation had taken place. The dough didn’t smell particularly sour. What had begun life as a thick paste had firmed up considerably. Once combined with the remaining ingredients the addition of eggs were required in order to bring the dough together. I made one batch with baking powder and one without. In terms of leavening the dough I can’t say I noticed a vast difference between two. The main difference between the honey and treacle based doughs was the flavour. Despite the fact that both doughs had been made at the same time and matured in the same conditions, method 2 produced a more muted flavour. To my mind it makes more sense to include the spices before the maturation begins. However, as this result shows perhaps I would be better following Abegg’s example and leave a mother dough to mature before adding the remaining ingredients. It should be said though that pain d’épice has very different texture to the gingerbreads produced in Britain and not really what I was going for with this experiment.
For the time being the remaining dough has been returned to the garage to continue its process of maturing. There is still much to learn I feel about this whole gingerbread fermentation scenario.
To be continued…