The enduring appeal of gingerbread
Perennial favorite rooted in Colonial times and history
The ornaments maybe sitting in their boxes waiting to be hung and your holiday to-do list growing longer and longer. But slip a gingerbread into the oven and the entire house fills with a warm, welcoming, spicy aroma that puts everyone in a holiday mood.
This old-fashioned cake is one of the simplest confections in any baker’s repertoire. It contains flour, an array of spices, and molasses, and once they are prepared - often in a single bowl with a wooden spoon, baked in ordinary square pans and one-layer rounds - the taste is powerful enough to recall childhood memories.
When we asked readers to send their favorite gingerbreads to the Recipe Box Project, the cakes and the personal stories filled our inbox. Yes, you can make a great cake from a good recipe. But a recipe that was found blowing around a parking lot in Maine 35 years ago - which one reader sent us - well, that must indeed evoke memories.
Gingerbreads are the hallmark of New England baking, mainly because the main ingredient, molasses, is so tightly woven into our history. Colonists used molasses as their primary sweetener, according to “The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink.’’ By the late 17th century, molasses (along with cotton wool, rum, and sugar) was being shipped from the Caribbean to Rhode Island in exchange for pork, beer, butter, and cider. The dark sweetener was used to brew beer and distill rum. “In the early 1700s,’’ writes Robert Brower in the “Oxford Companion,’’ “rum made in New England became an essential element in a highly profitable triangular trade across the Atlantic. The [Colonists] exported rum to West Africa in trade for slaves; the ships brought the slaves from Africa to the French West Indies, trading them for more molasses and sugar; these products were then shipped to New England to make more rum.’’
The molasses plot thickens. The trade hurt British farmers in the Caribbean, a subsequent Molasses Act imposed a tax on the ingredient for Colonists, and eventually the price of molasses rose so high, writes Brower, that cooks turned to maple syrup.
But the longing for the taste of molasses continued in dishes such as Boston baked beans and Boston brown bread. Indian pudding, gingersnap cookies, hermits, and Anadama bread all call for it, and of course gingerbread is entirely different without it (one reader sent us an interesting cake that uses golden syrup in place of molasses). With its dark color, sludgy texture, and distinctive burnt caramel-y flavor, molasses gives gingerbread its distinct characteristics.
We chose six reader recipes and enlisted Janine Sciarappa, lead pastry instructor at Boston University Certificate Program in the Culinary Arts, to test and tweak them. She explains that some recipes, such as Colonial gingerbread, which gives the biggest molasses blast of the bunch, use the “one-stage method,’’ in which all ingredients go into the bowl to be mixed. You may get a few white spots, where the flour has not absorbed the liquids, but that’s the nature of these batters. Grammie K’s gingerbread, where the flavor of molasses is not as dominant as some of the others, uses a technique Sciarappa calls the “gingerbread method,’’ in which the flour is added to the liquid ingredients - egg, sugar, molasses, and melted butter - with boiling water and baking soda stirred in at the end.
Many of these recipes call for boiling water, as old-fashioned cakes often do. The hot liquid deepens the color of the cake and activates the leavening agent, in this case, baking soda. (Molasses, an acidic ingredient, needs baking soda instead of baking powder to rise because soda reacts with an acid ingredient.) In black pudding cake, the recipe found in the parking lot, instructions call for hot coffee instead of boiling water. This cake has an almost creamy texture with layers of flavor from both molasses and coffee. Mum’s gingerbread is delightfully sticky, which appealed to us, and if you are not sure you like molasses, English golden gingerbread, made with golden syrup, is light in color and taste.
Anna Sutton, a cooking teacher in Needham on a gluten-free diet, adapted her Swedish grandmother’s gingerbread. Ingrid Lysgaard, a former baking instructor who is well versed in gluten-free confections, smoothed out the recipe. Now there is virtually no difference between this recipe and an ordinary cake.
Serve gingerbread with lemon sauce, as in the Colonial recipe, with whipped cream or ice cream, a bowl of sliced oranges, sauteed apples or pears, or simply sprinkled with confectioners’ sugar, like a dusting of snow. Gingerbread is a holiday decoration all on its own.
Debra Samuels can be reached at email@example.com.