Cooking with the (Silent) Stars: Dorothy Sebastian’s Southern Gingerbread

Welcome back! I am cooking my way through the 1929 Photoplay cookbook (recipes of the stars!) and you are invited to tag along. (I have listed all the recipes I have tested on this dedicated page. Check back often.) Today, we will be testing a recipe from a vibrant personality.

An Alabama girl through and through, Dorothy Sebastian roared with the best of them throughout the 1920s. A vivid personality who brought pep and vigor to her roles, Sebastian is probably best known today for her onscreen partnership (and offscreen romance) with Buster Keaton.

However, it would be a mistake to stop there. Sebastian enjoyed popularity in the flapper genre, along with fellow starlets Joan Crawford and Anita Page. She weathered the sound transition and, taking time off for marriage, appeared in pictures until the 1940s.

dorothy-sebastian

On an amusing side note, Sebastian tried to evade a drunk driving charge in the 1930s by blaming her decidedly alcoholic breath on spaghetti and garlic served by Buster Keaton. It didn’t work but we have to give her credit for imagination.

In any case, Sebastian was a delightful spark in the history of film. But how do her culinary skills measure up? We’re going to taste her Southern Gingerbread.

Here is the original recipe:

Dorothy-Sebastian-Gingerbread

As you may have noticed, this “gingerbread” contains very little ginger. It does, however, contain a whole heap of molasses. To ginger fans, this is probably a disaster but since I strongly dislike ginger and really like molasses, this is a positive boon.

I followed the recipe as written and the resulting batter was thick, glossy and a very pretty medium brown.

Batter up!
Batter up!

The recipe (as was typical) did not include exact oven temperatures or pan sizes. My experience has been that “moderate” usually means 350° F. As for pan size, the recipe made a lot of batter. I decided to use the old standby: a 9″ x 13″ pan. That usually works for most sheet cakes, casseroles and most anything else.

I checked the gingerbread after 30 minutes but the toothpick I inserted had semi-liquid batter clinging to it. All told, the pan was in the oven for a little over an hour. It finally emerged with a glossy top and the same caramel color. It smelled divine! I let it cool for an hour before I dug in.

dorothy-sebastian-03
No, a vampire didn’t attack the cake. Those are my testing marks.

The cake was very moist, crumbs stuck to the knife as I sliced it. It also had the rich, dense texture that American cakes had before we went all in for “fluffy.”

Excuse the plain photo. I meant to put the cake on a doily and artistically sprinkle powdered sugar but I was tired and hungry.
Excuse the plain photo. I meant to put the cake on a doily and artistically sprinkle powdered sugar but I was tired and hungry.
Rich!
Rich!

Now for the moment of truth. The Taste Test:

My rating: 4 out of 5. The cake was delicious! Lots of rich molasses flavor and just a bit of spice. It’s a very old-fashioned flavor, as is true of any molasses recipe, but it hit the spot for me. I tried it several different ways (the sacrifices I make for you, dear readers) and my favorite was to eat it in a bowl with milk poured over it. Whipped cream, powdered sugar and just plain were also yummy.

I would definitely make this again but I think I will divide the batter between two 9″ x 13″ pans, which should allow it to bake faster and have more of a traditional gingerbread texture. I still think the recipe title is incorrect, though. This, my friends, is molasses cake!

But one more thing: what do you think Buster Keaton’s spaghetti recipe tasted like?

Update: I seem to have inadvertently spread a Buster Keaton myth. The humor was meant to be at the expense of Sebastian’s silly excuse for drunk driving but I completely forgot that there is an urban legend that Keaton was a lifelong alcoholic. This has been pretty thoroughly disproved by the good people of the Buster Keaton Society. Keaton did have a rough patch with the collapse of his marriage and his professional woes in the late-twenties/early thirties. Fortunately for Keaton, he realized he had a problem. He quit cold turkey in 1935 and generally limited himself to a single evening beer for the rest of his life. At the time of Dorothy Sebastian’s fateful spaghetti dinner, he probably was drinking nothing stronger than grape juice, aside from that one beer. Sebastian, on the other hand, admitted to consuming three or four glasses of wine, which would make most petite women more than a little tipsy.

8 Replies to “Cooking with the (Silent) Stars: Dorothy Sebastian’s Southern Gingerbread”

  1. I really enjoy these culinary time-travels, reminds me of the back pages of the old “Joy of Cooking.” Judging by the ratio of “wet” to dry ingredients, this sounded like a dense cake, a sort of molasses “brownie.” But I share your enthusiasm for molasses, so I may try this. BTW, I wonder if Buster’s spaghetti was more of a “vodka sauce!”

  2. Hmmm. I’d have added more ginger, personally (because I like it a lot more than molasses). I do like that the result looks like some nice old-fashioned brownies, texture and all. I’m weird, so I’d add a pinch of mace just to get that odd little animal cracker kick that spice gives some baked goods.

    Buster probably made a pasta with vodka sauce. or gin sauce. Well, someone got sauced that evening for sure… 😀

    1. Just to show you how times have changed, Sebastian admitted to drinking 3 or 4 glasses of wine during dinner (this is post-Prohibition) but declared that she absolutely was sober and was not even slightly tipsy. The papers were more interested in the spaghetti angle and let amount of wine slide but it’s pretty much considered a binge by modern standards (Sebastian was a small woman).

      As for Keaton himself, he quit drinking cold turkey in 1935. Contrary to popular opinion, he only had a bad patch of overdrinking and was able to pull himself out of it.
      https://www.facebook.com/notes/buster-keaton/the-buster-keaton-myths/95451371420

  3. You’re not from the South, are you, Honey? Southern gingerbread (or molasses cake, if you will) is dense and moist, not Christmas-tree-ornament slabs. Try it with chopped, crystallized ginger sprinkled on top before baking (in one pan): oh, my! Don’t get too fancy with additional spices, though; you want the flavor of molasses to be the star.

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