Gingerbread, which has a long history in much of Europe, first appeared in English cookery books in the late fourteenth century. It was often molded into human shapes—frequently lovers, sometimes even kings and queens—using a wooden mold. According to The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, Elizabeth I commanded her kitchen to shape gingerbread to resemble her courtiers, suitors, and others, which she would then have served to them. By the early nineteenth century, a similar custom was popular at local fairs, where gingerbread “husbands” were bought by girls looking for a sweetheart. Simpler shapes, such as large squares and freeform biscuits, were sold as well, both at fairs and at bakeries. In the Victorian era, gingerbread figures became popular Christmas-tree ornaments.
This recipe from Eliza Acton’s 1845 book, Modern Cookery, was so popular that Florence White included it in Good Things in England, published in 1932. An old-style gingerbread, it calls for black treacle, which yields a pungent result. For a milder flavor, swap out the black treacle for golden syrup or light molasses.