Fochabers Gingerbread

This traditional gingerbread from the town of Fochabers, Scotland, is packed with all sorts of goodies, including fruit, spices, and almonds. The most unusual ingredient, however, is beer.

This recipe was recorded by the Scottish folklorist F. Marian McNeill in her 1929 book The Scots Kitchen. Unfortunately, she doesn’t specify what type of beer should be used. While I was able to find some other recipes for Fochabers Gingerbread on the web, most of them appeared to be variations drawn from McNeill’s original recipe, and likewise only called for “beer.”

I wanted to be as authentic as possible – and also have my gingerbread taste good – so I began scouring the web, looking for information on historic Scottish beers. Most of the information I discovered was either not relevant or contradictory, although I did come across this excellent historic photograph of three Scotsmen drinking beer:

Finally, I discovered the website for the Scottish Brewing Archive Association. Who better to ask about Scottish beer than Scottish beer experts? They suggested that I look for a strong and dark beer, such as a stout or a Scotch Ale (not the same as a Scottish Ale in the United States, which are usually lighter). While I unfortunately wasn’t able to find any of the specific Scottish craft beers they recommended in my local California stores, I settled on Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout, which has similar characteristics.

Fochabers Gingerbread (halved):

  • 8 oz butter
  • 4 oz castor sugar
  • 8 oz molasses
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 pound flour
  • 4 oz sultanas (golden raisins)
  • 4 oz currants
  • 3 oz ground almonds
  • 3 oz candied peel
  • 1/2 oz mixed spices
  • 1/2 oz ground ginger
  • 1/4 oz ground cinnamon
  • 1/8 oz ground cloves
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 pint (1 cup) beer

I was a bit confused about the “mixed spices.” Normally, I would probably use ginger, cinnamon, and cloves if a recipe called for mixed spices. In this case, however, those are all listed separately. I ended up using a mix of nutmeg, mace, and coriander. Allspice and cardamom would’ve been good additions too, if I could’ve found them in my disorganized spice cabinet.

I panicked a bit while measuring out the ground ginger, as 1/2 oz looked like an insane amount. I ended up using only half that amount (1/4 oz) – which turned out to be a mistake. I can barely taste the ginger in the finished gingerbread. Although it would’ve nearly wiped out my ginger supply, I should’ve trusted the recipe on this one – the full amount of 1/2 oz should be used.

I baked the gingerbread in a 9 inch square pan at 325 degrees. It took about an hour and 45 minutes until it was done and the cake tester came out clean.

Tasting notes:

This reminds me of the 1870s coffee cake I made a few months ago, which includes similar ingredients such as candied peel and raisins. This recipe, however, has a much nicer, lighter texture, probably because of the beer. I don’t really taste any actual beer flavors, though.

The predominant flavor is orange, from the candied orange peel, followed by molasses. The ginger flavor is very subtle, but of course this is my fault for not using the full amount of ginger.

I read somewhere that this gingerbread is good toasted and buttered, which seemed like an odd way to eat gingerbread at first. However, I went ahead and tried it, and it is excellent! The gingerbread does dry out slightly over time, so the butter really helps it retain its moistness and bring out the flavors. It’s definitely more like a bread than a cake, and is perfect for breakfast.

References:

McNeill, F. M. (2004). The Scots kitchen. Edinburgh: Mercat Press. (Original work published 1929).

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