Laura Ingalls Wilder: Gingerbread Cake with Chocolate Icing

Wilder Gingerbread Cupcakes

There’s an old story in my family, one of those anecdotes that gets told to every dinner guest, about a Thanksgiving 25 years ago. A sleepy three-year-old me burst into tears in front of my dessert plate. When asked what was wrong, I sobbed: “I can’t decided whether to eat my pie or my ice cream first.”

I don’t cry about it anymore, but the weight of dessert decisions still bears heavy on my mind, especially when faced with the cornucopia of the holidays. It’s a feeling that might sound familiar to Almanzo in Farmer Boythe second installment of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series. “When he began to eat pie, he wished he had eaten nothing else. He ate a piece of pumpkin pie and a piece of custard pie, and he ate almost a piece of vinegar pie. He tried a piece of mince pie, but could not finish it. He just couldn’t do it. There were berry pies and cream pies and vinegar pies and raisin pies, but he could not eat any more.” Do you eat your pumpkin pie or your custard pie first? It’s an impossible question.

My mom read the Little House series to me until I was old enough to dive into them myself, and (as many have noted) the food scenes still stand out—for good reason. Wilder was writing from her experience as a seasoned cook on her own farm, the basis for her books. “All the work of the farm centers in the farmer’s wife’s kitchen,” she wrote in an early column for The Missouri Ruralist, essays that germinated the idea for the children’s series. “[It] must be more than merely a kitchen. It is the place where house and barn meet, often in pitched battle.”

Wilder’s kitchen was a flurry of activity: “I skim milk, make butter, and cook bran mashes for the chickens and potato pairings for the hogs in mine,” she wrote. It also had to accommodate a variety of non-cooking uses. When re-doing the kitchen, her plans included storage for chicken feed buckets and pigs’ swill. The entire budget for her kitchen renovation? $49.84. HGTV would have a heart attack.

On the farm, multiple dessert options wasn’t a problem—it was a necessity, in order to make it through a physically-demanding workday. Rose, Laura’s daughter, described her father’s typical breakfast: “Here are bowls of oatmeal, with whole pints of cream, large dishes of baked apples, the big blue platter full of sizzling ham, with many eggs disposed upon it; here are hot cakes piled by the tens and dozens, with melting butter and brown sugar between them, and hashed brown potatoes, Graham bread and white bread, fresh butter, honey, jam, milk and the steaming pot of coffee. Here are doughnuts or gingerbread to accompany the coffee cups’ second filling.”

One way to solve the problem of what to have for dessert is simply to have it at all times of day;on the prairie, instead of being seen as a sweet, gingerbread served year-round alongside the main meal, like a side of cornbread, as an aid to digestion. But Almonzo Wilder went a step further, embracing the idea of dessert for breakfast with “just one medium-size wedge of apple pie to top off the meal and finish the foundation for a good day’s work.” At this time of year, we’re all Farmer Boys at heart; when we begin to eat pie, there’s no stopping us.

Gingerbread cupcake recipe

Boiled chocolate icing

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Beatrix Potter: Gingerbread Cookies

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.

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