Forget the sugar plums. When it comes to a quintessential holiday sweet, it’s visions of gingerbread many of us have dancing so deliciously in our heads.
Maybe it’s the old-fashioned cake that puts you in the holiday spirit. Food — especially that from childhood — often takes us on a trip down memory lane, and for some there’s nothing sweeter than recalling how Mum or Grandma would pull a fragrant gingerbread out of the oven to be sliced into big, moist squares.
Or perhaps it’s the man-shaped ginger-spiced cookies that make you feel so very merry.
Out of the oven soft, but wonderfully crispy by the time they make their way into our mouths, gingerbread men are a Christmas classic. So much so, that the keenest bakers among us spend hours making and decorating the cookies with white royal icing, adding raisins for eyes and succulent gum drops for buttons — and can’t help but grin when we put them on a plate for Santa.
Even in those (crazy) instances where you don’t care to eat gingerbread cakes and cookies, you gotta love the way thin squares of the spicy confection are glued together with icing into miniature houses.
Just as Valentine’s Day is marked by chocolate, Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without some sort of gingerbread on the table.
It’s a culinary tradition centuries in the making: honey-sweetened ginger cakes called pain d’epices became popular in France as early as 1393, notes Jennifer Linder McGlinn in Gingerbread (Chronicle, available on Kindle). That’s about the same time bakers in Nuremburg started perfecting the art of Lebkuchen, a traditional German Christmas treat.
Earlier still, ancient Greeks, Romans, Chinese and Arabs loved ginger, which has been grown in southern Asia for more than 3000 years.
During medieval times, gingerbread was made with stale breadcrumbs instead of flour and flavoured with wine, vinegar, rosewater and ground almonds. “The batters were either beaten into stiff pastes or cooked until thickened,” after which it was pressed into decorative wooden or ceramic molds, McGlinn writes. It wasn’t until the 17th century that today’s softer gingerbreads — sweetened with treacle (molasses) and made richer with eggs and butter — started gaining in popularity.
These days, ingredients can include molasses, cloves, allspice, cinnamon, Chinese five-spice powder, citrus, chocolate and even alcohol. And gingerbread no longer is relegated to dessert. You don’t have to search too hard to find recipes for gingerbread-flavoured confectionary, ice-cream, pastries or cocktails, and it’s even a key player in breakfast dishes such as waffles and pancakes.
Nor must today’s cook rely just on powdered or ground ginger. The recipes below make good use of crystallised ginger (candied in sugar syrup), preserved ginger (preserved in sugar and salt) and grated fresh ginger.
My favorite of the bunch was a (very) spicy ginger loaf that had me ... slathering on a thick, decadent layer of cream cheese icing. It was just as good for breakfast as it was for dessert.
My favorite of the bunch was a (very) spicy ginger loaf that had me mixing finely chopped sweet ginger into the batter and, after the cake had baked, slathering on a thick, decadent layer of cream cheese icing. It was just as good for breakfast as it was for dessert. But the real showstopper was Dorie Greenspan’s recipe for a gingerbread Bûche de Noël. Shaped like a yule log, this glamorous, French-styled Christmas cake delights with homemade marshmallow icing and a crunchy pecan praline topping. It’s the creme de la creme of holidays desserts.
Gingerbread also can be wonderfully crisp and crunchy, as the classic gingerbread cookie so aptly demonstrates.
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