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Make Shrewsbury cakes (with or without cherries) to honor George Washington on Presidents Day.
Forget cherry pie; bring on the Shrewsbury cakes and gingerbread men. The first will honor George Washington on Presidents Day; the second, Abraham Lincoln.
Shrewsbury cakes are among the 400 “receipts” (recipes) in “Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeats,” a handwritten manuscript that the first lady acquired with her marriage in 1750 to Daniel Custis, and which she bequeathed to her granddaughter, Nelly Custis, in 1799. In between, Daniel Custis died, Martha married George, the Declaration of Independence was signed, the American Revolution was fought, the Constitution was ratified, the Bill of Rights was adopted, and Washington was elected president. Twice. And, of course, a whole lot of cooking and baking went on.
The “cookery booke,” now in the collection of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, was transcribed and interpreted in 1981 by eminent food historian Karen Hess and published by Columbia University Press. Hess points out that it was written in the 1600s and that Martha may have considered it an “old-fashioned” relic. But similar recipes for Shrewsbury cakes were still being printed in cookbooks throughout the 1800s, so it is quite possible that Martha was still using this one from her “Booke of Sweetmeats.” If you can’t honor George without cherries, add dried ones to the recipe.
As for Lincoln, we know that gingerbread men were a childhood favorite from an anecdote recounted by Carl Sandburg in “Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years”:
“When we lived in Indiana,” (Lincoln) said, “once in a while my mother used to get some sorghum and ginger and make some gingerbread. It wasn’t often, and it was our biggest treat. One day I smelled the gingerbread and came into the house to get my share while it was still hot. My mother had baked me three gingerbread men. I took them out under a hickory tree to eat them. There was a family near us poorer than we were, and their boy came along as I sat down. ‘Abe,’ he said, ‘gimme a man?’ I gave him one. He crammed it into his mouth in two bites and looked at me while I was biting the legs off my first one. ‘Abe, gimme that other’n.’ I wanted it myself, but I gave it to him and as it followed the first, I said to him, ‘You seem to like gingerbread.’ ‘Abe,’ he said, ‘I don’t s’pose anybody on earth likes gingerbread better’n I do — and gets less’n I do.’”
This story made the rounds and was often reprinted in newspapers, but no specific recipe was ever given. A Minnesota blogger named Rae Katherine Eighmey offers a credible re-creation in a post titled “What Lincoln Enjoyed Eating”; look for it online.
Baking either cookie would be a fun and delicious project to do with kids or by yourself. Hail to the chef!
Yield: 18 (2½-inch) rounds
4 cups pastry flour (see notes)
¾ cup sugar
1½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon mace (see notes)
1½ cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter
½ to 2/3 cup dried cherries (optional)
2 large egg whites
2 teaspoons rosewater (see notes)
2 teaspoons sherry (see notes)
2 to 4 tablespoons heavy cream
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line two cookie sheets with baking parchment.
In a large bowl, stir together flour, sugar and spices. Cut butter into small chunks and toss into the bowl. Using your hands, rub the butter into the flour mixture until it has a crumbly texture. If using the cherries, stir them in.
In a small bowl, whisk together egg whites, rosewater and sherry. Add to the dry mixture and stir. Add 2 tablespoons cream and work together until a dough forms. Drizzle in more cream, if needed, to form a dough.
On lightly floured surface, pat out dough to ½ inch thick. Cut into rounds using a biscuit cutter or the floured rim of a drinking glass. Place rounds on the cookie sheets and bake 15 to 20 minutes, until just slightly golden. Cool on a wire rack.
Notes: If you don’t have pastry flour, use 2 cups all-purpose flour and 2 cups cake flour, OR use 3½ cups all-purpose flour plus ½ cup cornstarch.
Mace is the outer covering of the nutmeg and has a distinctive flavor, but nutmeg is an acceptable substitute.
Rosewater is a common ingredient in Middle Eastern cooking. It is sold in some supermarkets, in specialty stores and in Middle Eastern markets. If you can’t find it, use almond extract.
If you don’t have sherry, substitute port, sweet vermouth or Madeira.
Recipe adapted from “Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeats,” transcribed by Karen Hess (Columbia University Press, 1981)
Marialisa Calta is a syndicated food writer who lives in Calais.
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