THERE are all kinds of Scottish recipes for gingerbread, with many of them handed down through families over generations. Delectably yielding, treacly sweet and spicy all at the same time, it is an irresistible teatime treat and perfect to have on-hand in the cake tin for any guisers knocking at your door on Hallowe’en. Cut into chunky squares, or sliced as a thick slab and buttered liberally, it's glorious on a cold winter’s day. Even the smell of it baking, brought back childhood memories when I tested the recipe for this column.

Some recipes are named after Scottish towns, such as Fochabers, Inverness and Kirriemuir. These are mostly plain and close-textured, or contain citrus peel and dried fruit. The amount of spiciness varies too. Orkney gingerbread, called Broonie, contains oatmeal as well as flour. Parlies, or Parliament cakes, were once baked and sold on Edinburgh's streets as far back as the 1800s, earning their name from their popularity among the judges, lawyers and businessmen who enjoyed one of these thick, crunchy, ginger biscuits with a whisky, rum or brandy as a midday pick-me-up. Perhaps the hot ginger flavour helped to keep out the cold as they walked around Parliament Square in solemn discussion about the day’s business and politics. Eaten with a stiff drink, this must have been the original shivery bite.

Ginger has long been a popular flavouring in Scottish food and drink production. The strangely-shaped root, imported into Europe from the West Indies, Far East, India and Australia since overseas shipping routes began trading, was considered beneficial to the immune system, good for coughs and colds, and an aid to digestion. Ginger beer, ale, wine and cordials have all been manufactured in Scotland, plus it remains a popular addition to sweeties and baked goods. An exceptionally versatile flavouring it is equally good in meat, fish and savoury dishes, and with poached or dried fruit, cakes, pies and pastries. It is an essential ingredient in pickles, chutneys, and jams such as rhubarb and gooseberry. There seems no end to its culinary usage, freshly peeled and grated, preserved in sugar, or ground into dry powder.

Passing through the town of Kirriemuir in Angus a few months ago, I decided to try and find out more about the origins of its famous gingerbread. The ladies in the library were extremely helpful, even although they couldn't find the original recipe, said to have been given to local baker, Walter Burnett, by a traveller. Younger members of the family later sold the recipe to a larger manufacturer in the 1940s and the product has been made on a grand scale ever since.

Kirriemuir – home of JM Barrie – the author of Peter Pan. I couldn't help but think that the neat rows of dark red stone cottages resembled gingerbread houses. It would have been lovely to find a tea shop taking pride in making and selling its local gingerbread, but alas, this was not to be. No-one I met knew much about why Kirriemuir was famous for gingerbread, including the attendant at the interesting, local museum. I wonder if this is a similar story in Fochabers or any of the towns which lend their names to well-known Scottish products such as, for example, Selkirk Bannock, or Ecclefechan Tart. Perhaps we should be taking more notice of these items and preserving their names for future generations to enjoy as something locally made and delicious, rather than mass-produced in a factory, far from their original home.

The recipe below is one I have baked since I was a teenager. In a bid to make the restaurant more profitable, we went through a phase in the mid-1990s of serving afternoon tea as well as lunch and dinner every day. It was a gruelling schedule to maintain and involved a huge amount of extra preparation. This gingerbread was a popular choice on the menu and when I went to find the recipe, I discovered an old note stuck to the page of my book, making the quantities up to four times the amount, from the days when we baked in large batches. I have to admit, my heart skipped a beat at the thought of baking it on such a scale again, along with many other items for the tea trays. Thank goodness those hectic days are over for me.

Iced Gingerbread

(Makes one large cake)

400g self-raising flour

225g soft, dark brown sugar

225g salted butter (plus extra for greasing tin)

150g black treacle

100g golden syrup

2 tbsp hot water from a boiled kettle

3 large eggs

2 heaped tsp ground ginger

1 heaped tsp ground cinnamon

50g crystallised ginger pieces, or stem ginger in syrup


1. Lightly grease a 23cm square cake tin and line the base with non-stick baking parchment paper. Preheat oven to Gas Mark 3, 170°C.

2. Sieve flour and ground spices into a large mixing bowl.

3. Rinse the crystallised or stem ginger pieces under warm water to remove sugar or syrup coating and chop into small pieces. Add to bowl.

4. Take a small plastic jug or bowl and sit on top of your scales. Adjust scales to zero. Pour the treacle and syrup into the jug or bowl until scales measure the quantity required. Using a plastic bowl scraper, transfer the treacle and syrup to a saucepan. Add the warm water to the bowl or jug and swirl around to take up any remaining treacle and syrup, and pour this into the saucepan.

5. Chop the butter into smaller pieces and add to the saucepan together with the brown sugar. Heat gently until melted, stirring together with a wooden spoon.

6. Pour the melted ingredients over the dry ingredients and mix thoroughly until it resembles a thick batter. An electric hand mixer makes the job a little easier.

7. In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs. Add the eggs to the cake mixture and beat with the wooden spoon (or electric mixer) until thoroughly combined.

8. Pour the mixture into the prepared cake tin and place in the centre of the pre-heated oven. Bake for up to 1 hour until well-risen and firm to touch in the centre. Test with a metal skewer or cake tester by gently piercing the centre of the cake. If the skewer removes cleanly, the cake will be cooked. Do not allow it to burn around the edges of the cake, as this will begin to make the cake dry. Remove from the oven and leave to cool completely in the tin. Before icing, remove from tin and sit upon a cooling rack over a flat baking tray.

For the icing

110g icing sugar

50g crystallised ginger, or 2 balls of stem ginger in syrup

10-20ml cold water to mix


1. Sieve icing sugar into a bowl.

2. Gradually add enough cold water to make a thick, spreadable mixture. If it gets too thin, add more icing sugar.

3. When cake is cold, spread icing over the surface using a palette knife. It doesn't matter if it drips over the sides.

10. Scatter with ginger pieces and decorate for Hallowe’en if liked. Keeps well, wrapped in greaseproof paper, in a lidded tin for at least one week.

Shirley Spear is owner of The Three Chimneys and The House Over-By on the Isle of Skye