OAKLAND, CALIF. — Comforting, freshly baked gingerbread may warm the hearts of even the most pessimistic winter Scrooges. Few can resist this classic dessert, rich with dark brown sugar, molasses, and the taste and scent of sweet spices.
Shakespeare wrote, "Had I but a penny in the world, thou shouldst have it for gingerbread." To the coming holiday season filled with wonder and delight add the glorious fact that gingerbread is as easy to make as it is delicious. Perhaps this explains its long and illustrious past as one of the world's most favored dessert breads. "Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome" by Apicius, the oldest known cookbook, makes reference to both "gingiber" and "honey cakes." It is likely that the two were combined to produce a dish resembling gingerbread.
In the Middle Ages, young maidens would decorate hearty gingerbreads with extravagant garnishes like thin leaves made of real gold. The edible masterpieces would be given to knights before jousting tournaments as a sort of flirtatious calling card. Word of the enticing dessert quickly spread. As a result, different cultures developed their own versions.
Gingerbread has long been a favorite at Germany's holiday fairs. Their irresistible gingerbread cookies and cakes are light, but full of aromatic spices. Pfefferneusse, a German gingerbread cookie, often contains black pepper, along with the usual seasonings. Lebkuchen, another cookie, traditionally is made with honey and light brown sugar instead of molasses and dark brown sugar.
Ask for the best gingerbread in Britain and chances are you will be directed to the village of Grasmere in England's Lake District. There you will find The Grasmere Gingerbread Shop, which has used the same guarded recipe, created by Sarah Nelson, since 1855. Grasmere's two secret ingredients appear to be chopped dates and black treacle, or British molasses. British colonists brought their fondness for gingerbread to America. At least four recipes may be found in the first cookbook written here, "American Cookery," published in 1796. Except for the book's quantities, which are enormous, these recipes show how little the basic American-style gingerbread has changed.
American gingerbread is enriched with butter, eggs, molasses, and spices. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, many households served it on a weekly basis. Today it is mostly associated with the winter holiday season. The following recipes were inspired by American, British, and German varieties. Holiday Gingerbread Cake takes on a magnificent flavor that only seems to improve a day or two after baking. Children love to cut out and decorate Gingerbread Men. Ginger Scones make a perfect breakfast treat. You may accompany gingerbread with sweetened whipped cream, vanilla ice cream, or homemade applesauce.
Holiday Gingerbread Cake
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup packed, dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon lemon zest
3/4 cup water
2/3 cup molasses
1/4 lb. unsalted butter
2 eggs, beaten
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter an 8-inch square cake pan. Whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon, coriander, cloves, salt, and lemon zest in a mixing bowl. In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, combine water, molasses, and butter. Cook, stirring occasionally, until butter melts. Gradually add liquid mixture to dry ingredients. Stir until mixed. Stir in eggs. Pour batter into cake pan. Bake for about 45 minutes.
1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 lb. unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup dark corn syrup
3/4 cup dark brown sugar
1 egg, beaten
Raisins, licorice, cinnamon candies, etc., for decorating.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Butter two cookie sheets.
Whisk together flour, ginger, soda, and salt in a mixing bowl. In another bowl, mix butter, corn syrup, brown sugar, and egg together with an electric mixer. Gradually add wet ingredients to dry. Stir until blended. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead until smooth. Roll out into two 1/2-inch thick sections. With a cookie cutter, cut gingerbread men and decorate each. Arrange on prepared cookie sheets. Bake for approximately 12 minutes. Allow to set for a few moments before transferring to a cooling rack.
2 cups self-rising flour
2-1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
2-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1/3 cup milk
1/2 cup molasses
2 tablespoons milk
2 tablespoons brown sugar
Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Lightly butter a baking sheet. In a mixing bowl, whisk together flour, ginger, and baking powder. With a pastry cutter or by hand, add butter. Blend until mixture resembles a coarse meal. In a small saucepan over moderate heat, cook 1/3 cup milk and molasses together until warmed. Pour over dry ingredients. Stir until combined. Turn dough onto a lightly floured surface. Knead until smooth. Form into two 1/2-inch thick circles. Cut each circle into eight triangular wedges. Brush tops with two tablespoons milk and sprinkle with brown sugar. Arrange scones on prepared baking sheet. Bake for approximately 12 minutes. Makes 16.