Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Hancock Shaker Village and Apple Gingerbread

This past weekend found me visiting the museum at Hancock Shaker Village in nearby Pittsfield, Massachusetts. (Follow link below to their official website.) The museum is a fascinating site made up of actual buildings on the location of the authentic Shaker community that dissolved in 1960 due to dwindling numbers. This particular Shaker community originated in the late 1700s in Watervliet, New York, moved east to New Lebanon, and finally settled over the state border in Pittsfield. The Shakers were a celibate community. Their numbers could only be increased by recruitment and the adoption of orphans (who, at the age of 18, could choose to stay or go out in to “The World”) and were eventually reduced to the point where the village could no longer be sustained. Today, only the communities in Canterbury, New Hampshire and Sabbath Lake, Maine remain.

Living celibate, though egalitarian, lives, Shaker men and women were very productive, and lived communally (still with men and women separated, often occupying opposite areas of buildings at the same time) and were agriculturally self-sustaining. All inhabitants of the village were considered family. Shakers were well-known for the exceptional quality of their labors, especially for furniture and also canned kitchen products, which were in demand in surrounding communities.

At Hancock Shaker Village, I took particular interest in the kitchen, located in the basement of a large, rectangular building, named The 1830 Brick Dwelling. Despite its location, the kitchen was filled with sunlight, a bright, cheerful place with many features people look for in kitchens today. As a working museum, in the kitchen there was a young woman making dough. My daughter Katie took some photos and we were both impressed with the simple, homey beauty and efficiency of the space. It was not at all institutional as I had expected.

Leaving the kitchen, I helped curly-haired Henry (16 months) toddle across the lawn to a spot where we found a young volunteer spinning yarn from freshly-shorn sheep. Just beyond, in the Round Stone Barn, another volunteer was tending to chickens, cows, and sheep. Ducks and turkeys walked the grounds. Throughout the day there were presentations in different buildings, though our timing was off and we seemed to miss most of those. (Besides, we were getting hungry for what turned out to be a late lunch at The Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge!).

Saturday was a gorgeous, sun-filled day, perfect for a road trip and for strolling around the museum’s beautiful flower and herb gardens. Of course, at the end of the day, what had interested me most was the kitchen, and I remembered that the young woman making dough was referencing The Best of Shaker Cooking by Amy Bess Miller and Persis Fuller. Of course, I had to buy my own copy from the gift shop. I was disciplined and controlled myself, though there were many items calling out to me – an assortment of wooden, oval Shaker boxes, all sorts of jams and jellies, wooden toys for children (Henry’s parents did buy him a beautiful set of hand-made wooden blocks), books, art work, jewelry, calendars and books.

Once home, I sat down to read the cookbook (a favorite past-time). The recipes are simple and practical, optimizing the star ingredients. I’m sharing with you the recipe for Apple Gingerbread, blog-adapted:

Sister Olive
Hancock Shaker Village

2 tablespoons brown sugar
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 cup bread flour (for this, you can use all-purpose flour)
1 cup whole wheat flour (AP flour again if you don’t have whole wheat)
½ teaspoon each ginger, cinnamon, mace, and salt (no mace? – substitute nutmeg)
¾ cup molasses
¼ shortening, melted
¼ cup raisins
2 apples, pared, cored, and cut into eighths
1 egg, well beaten
½ cup milk

Mix and sift together all dry ingredients, add the molasses and shortening melted. Then add the well-beaten egg, raisins, and the milk. Place apples into greased pan.* Pour mixture over apples and bake in moderate 350˚ F. oven about 25 minutes or until it tests done.

Serve hot or warm with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

*Sister Olive indicated 6 muffin pans, which doesn’t add up to me, measure-wise. I suggest an 8” square pan and bake until it tests done. Watch the top to lose its wet look, give it the bounce test (lightly press center of cake, if it bounces back, it’s done) when the sides leave the edge of the pan, or test it with a tooth-pick.


More about Shaker cooking at: http://www.nytimes.com/1987/12/02/garden/shaker-cooking-simplicity-s-renewed-appeal.html

Photo credit: http://www.shakerworkshops.com/shaker-villages-and-museums/hancock-shaker-village.jpg


  1. We went to the Shaker Village for our second anniversary when Tina was just 9 months old. She was dressed up in a beautiful soft yellow dress and was standing holding on to a split rail fence and had the biggest smile on her face! We were able to catch a picture and all these years later, it remains one of my favorites of her as a child! I love the idea that you, Katie and Bill will have a similar memory of Henry...

  2. Thank you so much for posting this recipe. I copied this out of the cookbook MANY years ago from a friend at Alfred University. I have baked these so many times, traditionally at the holidays. I've often wondered if I copied it exactly. I did! I love this gingerbread. I'm so thankful to see it again.

    1. Lucy, I'm so glad you found one of your favorite recipes here, and that it is part of your holiday tradition. Have you ever visited the Hancock Shaker Village? It's an inspiring place, but I have to say I really loved the tour of the kitchen! Very happy holidays to you!