The cookbook isn't an updated version of an old recipe collection, like my Joy of Cooking cookbook- it is a word-for-word reprint of the Cooking-School Cookbook straight out of 1896, and even has sections that are more like an old textbook than a cookbook. All the recipes assume you're cooking over a fire. Lard is a common ingredient. No oven temperatures are given, and very few cooking times. Like I said, a challenge!
Here are the two recipes I tried; I'll copy what was printed in the cookbook, and, in italics, what I did:
Soft Molasses Cookies
1 C molasses - I had this on hand. So far so good.
1/2 C shortening, butter & lard, mixed. - Um, I don't keep lard around, exactly. I used 1/4 C each of butter & shortening.
1 Tbsp ginger - I didn't know whether this meant "fresh" or "dried" ginger, so I used a scant tablespoon of dried ground ginger.
1 Tbsp soda - Baking soda. Check.
2 Tbsp warm milk - In a very modern way, I heated the milk in the microwave.
2 C bread flour - I just had all-purpose flour on hand.
Heat molasses to boiling point, add shortening, ginger, soda dissolved in warm milk, and flour. (Invite your kids in the kitchen to watch this one. Apparently hot molasses + baking soda = cool chemical reaction) Chill thoroughly (Because of poor planning on my part, my dough was in the fridge for a week. I didn't tell those who ate the cookies that.) Toss one-fourth of the mixture on a floured board and roll as thinly as possible ; shape with a small round cutter, first dipped in flour. (I rolled to about 1/8" thickness, and used shaped cutters, not round ones. What fun are gingerbread CIRCLES when you can have gingerbread men?) Place near together on a buttered sheet and bake in a moderate oven. (What? no temperature? No time? "Moderate" means 350 degrees, and, I'm not sure I got the time right. My cookies weren't crisp, some were floppy-ish, and I don't know what they were "supposed to" be like. And I didn't write down how long I let them go. We'll say 8 minutes. And 'buttered sheet'? I modernized that & sprayed the cookie sheet with nonstick spray.) Gather up trimmings and roll with another portion of dough. During rolling, the bowl containing the mixture should be kept in a cool place, or it will be necessary to add more flour to the dough, which makes the cookies hard rather than crisp and short. (The 'crisp and short' comment is why I think I make not have cooked the cookies long enough.)
These were good gingerbread cookies- chewy and not crisp, as I mentioned. I let one cookie sheet crisp up & decided I preferred them chewy :) They had a good, dark color and a good flavor. Somehow, I've mysteriously lost my picture of the results. This is very disappointing.
Moving on... I tried one more (similar) recipe from the Fannie Farmer cookbook- this time, gingerbread muffins.
Soft Molasses Gingerbread
1 C molasses
1/3 C butter
1 3/4 tsp soda
1/2 C sour milk - That is, buttermilk- add 1 T vinegar to each cup of milk, mix, & set aside until needed.
2 C flour
2 tsp ginger
1/2 tsp salt
Put butter and molasses in saucepan and cook until boiling point is reached. Remove from fire, add soda. (This is the cool science-experiment-like part again. I made my husband come stir so he could see the results.) and beat vigorously. Then add milk, egg well beaten, and remaining ingredients mixed and sifted. (I got a sifter for Christmas! I could do this part!) Bake fifteen minutes in buttered small tin pans, having pans two-thirds filled with mixture. (Here, she gave me a time but no temperature? I baked the batter at 350 degrees in a greased muffin pan- also a Christmas gift!- for closer to 20 minutes. The recipe made exactly 12 muffins)
I topped the muffins with a simple icing made of powdered sugar & milk. Here's Fannie Farmer's version:
2 Tbsp boiling water
To water add enough sifted sugar to make of right consistency to spread; then add flavoring. Fresh fruit juice may be used in place of boiling water. This is a most satisfactory frosting, and is both easily and quickly made.
I didn't follow these directions at all, I just loved the description and to-the-point instructions. It was cute. What I did: used 2 Tbsp milk and a little vanilla and added a bunch of powdered sugar. Turns out, 2 Tbsp was way too much, and I had a bunch of icing left over after drizzling a little on all the muffins.
What do I now love about this cookbook? I'm an engineer, and the cookbook treats this all as a science to be explored. It gives "scientific explanations" (or what was understood in 1896, anyway) of different cooking & food phenomena, and seems to allow for experimentation around simple short recipes- none longer than a paragraph. The lack of pictures makes it all very exciting and challenging as well- you never know what you're supposed to end up with.