This holiday season, I embarked on a gingerbread quest. I’m not talking about any old gingerbread. I like my gingerbread dark and spicy. In fact, I’d really like it to knock me on my butt.
For most people, gingerbread is a winter holiday dish. But it will always remind me of my mother’s birthday, which happens to be in the spring.
Though dessert in its traditional form was not a frequent guest at our family dinner table, we each chose our favorite treat for our birthday celebration. And my mom, with the exception of the year she was dieting and we all ate raw apples with candles in them (served to a soundtrack of indignant howls from my sister and me), always picked gingerbread.
I don’t know which recipe my mom used. And I’m appalled at the realization that, to my recollection, my family selfishly allowed this amazing woman to bake her OWN birthday cake year after year. But I do remember how much I loved gingerbread – the spiciness, the hint of molasses, and the way the whipped cream slid off the top when the cake was served warm from the oven.
Researching recipes over the last few years, I found myself disappointed by versions that were tasty but a bit lackluster. Perhaps it’s okay for ginger CAKE to be subtly seasoned, but in my humble opinion, ginger BREAD needs to be something more.
So after I decided to take gingerbread to a pre-Christmas gathering, I started looking through recipes to figure out how to improve upon the standard. As I wondered exactly how much ginger would be too much, the latest issue of Cook’s Illustrated arrived.
I love Cook’s Illustrated because they do all the work for me. And they’re not pretentious about it. They make 57 batches of gingerbread until they get exactly what they’re looking for. And here, they were looking for something very spicy, almost primal. As is sometimes the case, the recipe was a little bit scary. (Black pepper? Really?) But the result was exactly what I wanted. Beautifully dark, spicy, slightly sticky gingerbread where (get ready for it…) GINGER is the real hero.
In fact, I liked it so much I took the recipe home for Christmas, and my mom baked it for our holiday meal. Maybe next year she’ll let me make it for her.
The Recipe: Classic Gingerbread Cake (adapted from Cook’s Illustrated magazine)
The original version calls for 3/4 cup stout, preferably Guinness. This could be fabulous. I wouldn’t know. For some reason, I just didn’t want to use stout, so I substituted water. I didn’t miss the stout, but feel free to try it.
The spice in this recipe comes from 2 TB ground ginger, 1 TB grated fresh ginger and 1/4 tsp ground black pepper. It is quite spicy, so please experiment. I cut the pepper to 1/8 tsp the second time around, but I missed the extra spice.
I also used half regular and half blackstrap molasses. I know blackstrap can be bitter, but in this cake, it seemed just the ticket.
Cooking It Up:
Preheat the oven to 350 with a rack in the middle position. Bring 3/4 cup water (or stout) to a slow boil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Remove from heat and stir in 1/2 tsp baking soda. (If you’re using stout, the mixture will foam.) Stir in 1/3 cup regular molasses, 1/3 cup blackstrap molasses, 3/4 cup brown sugar, and 1/4 cup granulated sugar until dissolved.
In a large bowl, whisk together 1 1/2 cups unbleached flour, 2 TB ground ginger, 1/2 tsp baking powder, 1/2 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon, and 1/4 tsp ground black pepper.
Place the water or stout mixture in another large bowl. Whisk in 2 large eggs, 1/3 cup vegetable oil and 1 TB finely grated fresh ginger. Whisk the wet mixture into the dry mixture in relatively equal thirds, whisking until completely smooth after each addition.
Transfer batter to a greased and floured 8-inch square baking pan. Tap the filled pan against the counter a couple of times. According to the recipe, this will remove any large air bubbles that may have formed during the whisking. Bake for 35 to 45 minutes, until the top of the cake is firm to the touch, and a toothpick comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack for 90 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature with whipped cream if you like.
Until next time,