Belle’s Gingerbread

Belle lived down the road in a big house on the hill. She had a circular driveway, a swimming pool and a sunken living room filled with plush carpet and curved velour sofas. When I was twelve, she called me over to baby-sit Victor, Carol and Kimberly. Late at night I fell asleep with Mozart on the stereo.

Belle sometimes asked me to help with her luncheon parties when glamorous ladies gathered at umbrella tables around her pool. She served plates of peaches and melons with mounds of cottage cheese and slices of dark, spicy gingerbread. Belle’s gingerbread became the gingerbread of my dreams. It’s richly spiced, not too sweet, always soft and moist. I still have her recipe copied out in my Palmer Method script on a small file card.

Gingerbread is one of our oldest confections. The Egyptians and Greeks sweetened root ginger. Medieval Europeans used ginger to spice dark honey cakes. Shakespeare offered, “[If] I had but one penny in the world, thou should’st have it to buy gingerbread”—while the Brothers Grimm took children into the woods where they found a witch’s gingerbread house, and we all once sang “You can’t catch me, I’m the Gingerbread Man. ”

Gingerbread was popular in colonial America as an everyday cake when molasses, sorghum and maple syrup were more common than refined sugar. Today Martha Washington might be surprised to find oil rather than lard in this recipe, but I think she’d be at home with the flavor of Belle’s gingerbread.

Belle’s Gingerbread

10 oz. all-purpose flour (2 scooped/leveled cups)

2 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons powdered ginger

1 ½ teaspoons allspice

1 ½ teaspoons cinnamon

1 teaspoon mace or nutmeg

1 cup unsulphured molasses (11 oz.)

8 fl. oz. boiling water (1 cup)

4 fl. oz. vegetable oil (1/2 cup)

1 beaten egg

Preheat the oven to 350°; grease a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan.

Sift the 7 dry ingredients together into a deep mixing bowl; make a well in the center

Combine the molasses, boiling water and oil. Mix in the egg and pour the liquid ingredients into the well in the dry mixture. Stir together with a whisk until smooth. Pour batter into the prepared loaf pan and bake for 45–60 minutes or until tests done. Do not open the oven door until the gingerbread has baked for 45 minutes. Turn out onto a wire rack to cool. Gingerbread will slice more easily if allowed to rest in a covered tin for a day.

Serve with soft butter or whipped cream.

Mary Jo’s cookbook is available at


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