By Peter Martin
"Oh the weather outside is frightful
But the fire is so delightful
And since we've no place to go
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow"
Sammy Cahn's lyrics are sung countless times over the holiday season, and as lover of the winter season I couldn't agree more with his words, but as delightful as that fire is nothing says comfort and warmth as much as the smell of gingerbread baking in the oven. The aromas of ginger and clove, the heady scent of cinnamon, and the deep earthy essence of molasses seems to rejuvenate and warm the soul while driving the cold and the dark back outside where it belongs. Christmastime is full of wonderful, comforting smells; the scent of a freshly cut Christmas tree, hot chocolate warming on the stove, or a smoldering log in the fireplace, but none envelope you in that soothing, relaxing essence quite the way that the spices in gingerbread seem to be able to do.
The story of gingerbread stretches back into mists of time. Ginger, itself, originated in Asia where it, along with countless other spices, has been in use for thousands of years. It's not hard to imagine ginger finding its way into the baked goods there early on. It certainly was in use in ancient Greece and Rome, often as an ingredient in various forms of spice cakes or honey cakes. Europe would have to wait though, until approximately 1000AD, when monks returned from the Crusades in the eastern Mediterranean, to get their first taste of ginger.
It didn't take the Europeans long to find numerous uses for this new spice. In Medieval times ginger, along with pepper, cinnamon and a whole host of other spices were often added to meats and entrees, many times to mask the flavor of less than fresh meat, or to prove to guests just how rich the host was, but in Western cuisine, ginger's legacy mainly lay in the dessert realm.
Today, the word "gingerbread" can be applied to various types of sweets, from hard, brittle cookies, to biscuit like treats, to dense moist cakes, all direct descendents of those ginger laden desserts created in Medieval Europe. What they all have in common though is their dependence of spices for flavor, with ginger and cinnamon the predominant flavors although early recipes often included numerous spices such as black pepper, cardamom, star anise, clove, mustard, aniseed, etc., along with the more traditional ginger and cinnamon.
Unlike today, gingerbread was a year round treat, often found at fairs across Europe. In cookie form the most popular shape was a heart, which is still popular across all of Europe, but any shape would do and bakers often took their cues from the seasons, creating flowers, animals, people or religious symbols. Human shapes had always been popular, though the "gingerbread man" got a boost during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I who was said to have given out gingerbread men, to important visitors, in their own likeness.
In Germany, gingerbread, often known a Lebkuchen, was elevated to high art, with guilds controlling most of the production. The gingerbread here was lighter than that of England due to the fact that Germans usually sweetened their gingerbread with honey as opposed to treacle, like the English. The gingerbread was also often pressed with molds before baking, creating very intricate designs, from depictions of everyday life to religious icons and portraits of saints. The very best of these were then painted with colored frosting or gilded with gold leaf. It is also believed that it was in Germany where the tradition of the gingerbread house was born.
Gingerbread, in all its guises and forms, was popular throughout most of Europe, found year round, at fairs, in homes, in bakeries and even in pharmacies and apothecaries-ginger has long been known to help relieve nausea so gingerbread was often given to the sick. With gingerbread being so popular among Europeans, it's not surprising that they brought their love for it with them to America.
While one could find all forms of gingerbread in colonial America, the early colonists preferred their gingerbread as a moist, dense, rich cake, black with molasses and heady with lots of cinnamon and ginger. As more and more Germans made the voyage to the New World they brought their love for gingerbread, in cookie form, with them. Today, when most American's think of gingerbread they think of gingerbread houses and men, not of cake. Gingerbread has also become a distinctly Christmastime tradition and is no longer found much except for around the holidays, unlike in Mediavel Europe.
Cookbooks and internet sites abound with recipes for the cookie style gingerbread, and numerous books and sites are even devoted, exclusively, to the making of gingerbread houses. Not nearly as common, anymore, are recipes for the cake style gingerbread. This is unfortunate, as not only is this cake absolutely delicious, it is quite easy to make, especially with modern day, chemical leavening agents such as baking soda. Serve this cake with a dollop of lightly sweetened whipped cream, or better yet, top it as it was traditionally topped with lemon curd or a lemon glaze.
2 cups flour
¼ cup granulated sugar
½ tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking soda
1 ½ tsp. ground ginger
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
¼ tsp. each ground clove, freshly grated nutmeg
¼ tsp. each ground black pepper, ground white cardamom (optional)
½ cup unsalted butter, melted (1 stick)
¾ cup molasses
¼ cup water
1 each large egg, beaten
1 cup buttermilk
Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease and flour a 9x9 baking pan. In a large mixing bowl combine the flour, sugar, salt, baking soda and spices, mixing well. In another bowl combine the butter, molasses, water, egg and buttermilk. Pour into the dry ingredients and mix just until a smooth batter forms. Do not over mix. Pour batter into the prepared baking pan and bake for 30-35 minutes. Cake is done when a toothpick, inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Remove to a cooling rack and allow to cool for 10-15 minutes before slicing. Gingerbread is best served warm, although it makes a perfectly good snack the following the day.