Among all children’s authors I loved growing up, Beatrix Potter always seemed the most wholesome by far. My favorite books were the eyebrow raisers: the delicious nastiness of Roald Dahl, the nightmarish worlds of Maurice Sendak. Even The Velveteen Rabbit gets borderline traumatizing. When the only person you truly love gets scarlet fever, and all your friends are burned, you can finally become “real” if you cry? That’s more drama than a episode of Dawson’s Creek.
I remembered Peter Rabbit and Jeremy Fisher as cuddly and innocent in comparison, but on a recent visit to the Morgan Library, I realized I had it all wrong: Potter had a not-so-secret dark side. Not a book goes by without some cute animal about to be skinned, drowned in a sack, or baked in a pie. Potter began her original draft of The Tale of Mr. Tod, “I am quite tired of making goody goody books about nice people.” Her editor nixed it; turns out, readers wanted those goody goody books.
Still, a few less-than-goody bits made it into print. One of my favorite Potter characters is Cecily Parsley, an adorable rabbit who moonlights as a beer brewer. Potter’s illustrations show Cecily soaking some barley in front of comically large barrels marked “XX.” It’s impossible to imagine other favorite children’s characters doing the same: Anne of Green Gables opening up a distillery, or the Goodnight Moon mouse tippling on some homemade hooch.
Did Potter take a cue from Cecily and start her own homebrews? Probably not. She did cook; at her beloved Hill Top Farm, in England’s Lakes District, she planted an herb and vegetable garden that Peter Rabbit would have loved to pillage. Much of her produce came from those gardens, but not all her recipes were virtuous. When Potter’s family recipe book went up for auction this fall, hiding in her gingerbread was a good dose of ale—a little bit of naughty in the midst of all that sugar, spice, and everything nice.
* * *
At first glance, Potter’s gingerbread recipe is a monumental task. It calls for 3.5 pounds of wheat meal, which would be perfect if I wanted to build a gingerbread house the size of my apartment. It also calls for “washing soda,” which sounds like a horrible accident that might happen if you kept your baking and laundry supplies in the same cupboard.
But, after quartering the recipe and remembering that washing soda is just baking soda, things started to look a bit clearer. I made it as directed, adding a bit of cinnamon and a dab of extra butter. Although I had expected a cakey gingerbread, the dough that came together screamed cookies. And who am I to say no to a very demanding dough – or to cookies in general?
Potter suggests letting ”all the ingredients except the flour and soda be put before the fire to dissolve for an hour or two.” I divided the dough and left it in the fridge for a few hours before rolling it out and cutting out dozens of frogs – some relatives of Jeremy Fisher that, like several of Potter’s characters, met an untimely (but very delicious) end.
(Slightly adapted from Beatrix Potter’s recipe book, via The Kitchn)
3 cups wheat flour (plus extra for work surface)
2 tablespoons ground ginger
1/2 tablespoon cinnamon
1/2 tablespoon allspice
1 cup dark treacle or molasses **
1/2 cup sugar
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter
1/2 cup ale, divided
1/2 tablespoon baking soda
1. Preheat oven to 325°F. In a medium bowl, sift together flour, ginger, cinnamon, and allspice. Set aside.
2. In a large bowl, cream together molasses, sugar, and butter. Stir in 1/4 cup ale. Add dry ingredients slowly, mixing until thoroughly combined. In a small bowl, add baking soda to the remaining 1/4 cup ale, then stir mixture into dough. Collect dough into 2 balls and refrigerate overnight.
3. Remove dough from fridge and let sit until just pliable. Line a large cookie sheet with parchment paper. On a floured surface, roll out each ball of dough until 1/4-inch thick. Cut into your favorite shapes (frogs!), and transfer to prepared cookie sheets.
4. Bake 10 minutes, until slightly firm. Cool on wire racks, and decorate to your heart’s content.
** Note: People say to avoid blackstrap molasses for baking. I like it, but it can taste bitter to some people. If you’re baking for company (and therefore many tastes), best to avoid it if you can.