How to Make Knotts

This version of this post first appeared on the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Shakespeare and Beyond blog.

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A plate of beautifully baked cookies is a wonderful thing. It is a welcoming gesture for guests, it signifies a holiday or a special meal, and it is a demonstration of a baker’s skill at making something pleasing to the eye and the palate. In Shakespeare’s England, bakers in elite households prepared sugar sculptures, confectionary, marzipan, and sweet doughs shaped into knots, twists, and letters.

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Sweets were an occasion for British women to not only show that they were excellent bakers, but that they were masters of other handicrafts such as sewing and writing. In her book Pens and Needles: Women’s Textualities in Early Modern England, Susan Frye explores the deep and pervasive connection between sewing and writing in Renaissance culture. She writes, “Women from a variety of backgrounds created needlework pieces that placed accepted subjects in every room, that helped to clothe themselves and their families, and that declared the family’s social status, even as they may be read as personal and political expressions” (116). A woman’s style of knotting thread and creating samplers, or needlework pictures, was an indication of her class and taste. It was as individualized as handwriting. Likewise, as Wendy Wall shows in her book Recipes for Thought: Knowledge and Taste in the Early Modern English Kitchen, handwriting and needlework were connected to culinary skill. Although elite women employed cooks in their households, the lady of the house might personally participate in the preparation of finely shaped delicacies. Recipes that instructed cooks to shape soft dough or marzipan into “knots,” asked bakers to draw on their experience knotting thread as well as writing “knots,” meaning elaborate circular flourishes or majuscule and miniscule letterforms (Wall 143).

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Over the course of Shakespeare’s lifetime, sugar went from being an incredibly expensive ingredient, imported overland from Asia, to a more widely used seasoning. Kim Hall’s scholarship on sugar and status in the period demonstrates that British women’s increased use of sugar implicated them in the systems of commerce and colonialism that kept people of African and Caribbean descent enslaved as laborers in sugar cane fields in the Americas. As these systems persisted in the century after Shakespeare’s death, sugar became cheaper still and more widely available to upper and middle class British people. A manuscript whose inception we can date to 1677, Folger manuscript V.b.380, shows a range of beautiful flourishing and handwriting as well as many recipes for spectacular sweets.

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Original Recipe

How to Make Knotts,” draws on a cook’s skill in shaping dough, writing, and sewing. The “Knotts” here are sweet cookies flavored with rosewater and caraway seeds. Although this flavor combination may sound unfamiliar, it is delicious and it was not uncommon in the period. Earlier this year, I prepared a delicious Seed Cake recipe with the same two dominant flavors.

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How to Make Knotts

Take a pound of flower and halfe a pound of shuger
and 1/2: pound of butter and :2: whits and one yealke of Eggs
a Little rosewater and a few Caraway seeds mingled
all to gather and make them all into a past and then
make them into knots and lay them upon paper and
so past bake them

Updated Recipe
Makes 24 cookies

1 cup, 2 tablespoons sugar
2 sticks butter (1 cup), room temperature
3 eggs (2 whole and 1 yolk)
1 tablespoon rosewater
3 1/3 cups flour (plus extra flour for shaping)
1 tablespoon caraway seeds
½ teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350F. Prepare two baking sheets by lining them with baking parchment or greasing them with butter or baking spray.

Cream together butter and sugar. Add the eggs and rosewater and stir to combine. Mix in salt, caraway, and flour to form a dough.

Shape into knots, twists, and letters on a lightly floured surface.

Bake 20-25 minutes.

This recipe comes from my year-long investigation of Folger Shakespeare Library manuscript V.b.380 alongside students and collaborators. I would like to thank the students (past and present) in my What’s in a Recipe? independent study (run through the Abington College Undergraduate Research Activities program); my collaborators Christina Riehman-Murphy and Heather Froehlich; and Shivanni Selvaraj and the PSU Outreach Seeding Change Engagement Grant for supporting my students in their research, event planning, and engagement with  Philadelphia.  

To Make Ginger Bread

This gingerbread recipe is not for the faint hearted. Potent ginger, molasses, caraway, and citrus flavors blend sweet and savory, spicy and floral. This is not necessarily surprising. Heavily spiced treats are a British holiday tradition (take a look at these mince pie and gingerbread recipes I’ve made in the past). Gingerbread recipes are remarkable for their strong flavors and interesting designs. Seventeenth-century moulds for figures and patterns — like these on Ivan Day’s Historic Food website — demonstrate the decorative potential of this cookie dough. Whether gingerbread was sold at a Christmas market or prepared for display and consumption in the home, it was meant to be both flavorful and beautiful.

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Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This early nineteenth-century English gingerbread mould, from the Victoria and Albert Museum, depicts a king and queen standing side-by-side. Others moulds from the period depict swaddled infants, winged figures, shepherds, St George, the Agnus Dei, fashionable ladies with fans, and fruit baskets. Although gingerbread men or houses are our culinary commonplaces in the twenty-first-century, historical gingerbread recipes and moulds reveal a range of other shapes.

Original Recipe

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To Make Ginger Bread
8
Take one Peck of flower a quarter of a pound
of ginger a quarter of a pound of Carraway
seeds one ounce of coriander seeds bruise the seeds
Tenn Eggs Tenn pound of Treakcle one pound of
Orange & one pound of Cittern bake them in a
Slow Oven
{anne
Western
Zk G

In the seventeenth century, treacle could refer to a range of sugar syrups of varying viscosity and flavor intensity from what a British baker would now call “golden syrup” to modern treacle and American blackstrap molasses. These syrups were a byproduct of sugar processing, and were widely available because of their use in the thriving rum industry and their connection to slavery and colonial trade routes.

I prepared 1/12 batch of the original recipe using American molasses and made more than two dozen gingerbread stars! The original amounts are a monumental undertaking either for sale, large-format gingerbread displays, or a grand celebration.

Updated Recipe

3 1/3 c flour
2T ground ginger
2T candied ginger, chopped small
1T caraway seeds
1t coriander seeds
1/3 c candied orange peel, chopped small
1/3 c candied citron
1 egg
1 1/4 c molasses (American bakers) or treacle (British bakers)

Preheat oven to 350F. Line cookie sheets with baking parchment or grease with butter or spray.

Mix gingerbread ingredients in a large bowl. Stir until a soft, slightly sticky dough forms.

On a lightly floured surface, roll out until 1/4 inch thick. Cut out shapes and/or stamp with designs.

Bake 10-15 minutes. The bottoms will feel set, but the cookies will still be soft.

Cool on racks for 10 minutes.

The Results

This gingerbread is packed with flavor and could be easily be stamped, shaped, or used to construct a house, figure, or any other monument you might dream up. The molasses dominates any bite that does not include a bit of citrus. If I were to make this again, I might swap out half of the molasses for honey or a lighter syrup.

This recipe comes from my year-long investigation of Folger Shakespeare Library manuscript V.b.380 alongside students and collaborators.