Modern gingerbread in the US is mostly done in cookie form, using flour to make a dense cookie dough. Our readers in the UK will be more familiar with gingerbread in a dense moist loaf form, like banana bread.
(The little rounds are slices of crystallized ginger.)
Gervase Markham in The English Housewife has a recipe for gingerbread as follows:
To make coarse gingerbread, take a quart of honey and set it on the coals and refine it: then take a pennyworth of ginger, as much pepper, as much liquorice; and a quarter pound of aniseeds, and a pennyworth of sanders [sandalwood]: all these must be beaten and searced [sifted], and so put into the honey: then put in a quarter of a pint of claret wine or old ale: then take three penny manchets finely grated and strew it amongst the rest, and stir it till it come to a stiff paste, and then make it into cakes and dry them gently.
That is a lot of spices, and in amounts that are almost impossible to gauge, because of the changing worth of the ingredients. Working with the recipe was necessary to make sure that the gingerbread was not overwhelmed by the liquorice flavour. Modern honey allows us to skip the step of refining the honey.
Gingerbread (The English Housewife, 1615)
1 cup honey
1 Tbsp ginger
1/2 tsp white pepper
1/4 tsp liquorice/aniseed extract
1/2 tsp whole aniseed, ground in a mortar and sifted
1/4 cup ale
5 cups finely grated fresh white breadcrumbs, firmly packed
Tools needed: 1 medium saucepan, heavy bottomed, small jello molds or candy molds, parchment paper, cookie sheet.
Warm the honey in a medium-size saucepan over low heat. Add the ginger, pepper, extract, and ground aniseed. Stir until well mixed. Add the ale, and stir until well blended. Add the breadcrumbs 1/2 cup at a time, stirring until blended each time. Once all the bread is added, cook the mixture over low heat, stirring frequently, until the mix is a stiff paste, like firm mashed potatoes. Turn off the heat, and allow to stand until cool enough to handle.
Preheat oven to 225F. Grease jello/candy molds generously with cooking spray; pack gingerbread mixture firmly into molds, so no air pockets remain, and so the bases are flat. Put filled molds into the fridge for 10 minutes. Un-mold gingerbread onto a parchment paper lined cookie sheet. Bake @ 225F for 30-40 minutes, or until the surface of the gingerbread is dry to the touch.
I’ve seen other people try to make gingerbread using this recipe, and I think the last step of drying the gingerbread in the oven is crucial to the success of the recipe. If the gingerbread is not baked, it remains unmanageably sticky. The flavour is spicier and has more bite than modern gingerbread; if you like anise and ginger, though, this recipe is delicious. Make sure to use small molds; a little of this gingerbread goes a long way!