I work in a bakery where every day I bake elaborate, many-tiered cakes with detailed decorations and complex fillings and icings. I love to design and make these showstopping confections, but I have to confess that when I make a cake for myself, I almost always make a simple, old-fashioned gingerbread. After a day spent piping buttercream and whisking ganache, I crave a simple dessert that’s soulful rather than fanciful. Not only is gingerbread easy to make, but its moist, tender texture and spicy, not-too-sweet flavor make it the perfect dessert for this tired baker.
Molasses and spices give gingerbread its flavor
Though ginger gets star billing, I’ve always felt that it’s molasses that makes gingerbread so distinctive. Made from refined sugar cane, molasses not only gives gingerbread its deep, rich flavor and dark color, but it also helps keep the cake moist.
Different recipes call for different spices, but I like the combination of ginger, cinnamon, and cloves. Ground spices lose their fragrance within a few months. Sniff spices before you use them: if they don’t have a strong aroma, throw them out.
Butter and baking soda make gingerbread rise
My version of gingerbread borrows from two classic cake types—creamed cakes and blended cakes. Creamed cakes rise because air is beaten into the butter when it’s creamed with the sugar. Blended cakes rely on chemical leavens. In this recipe, I start with creamed butter for the texture and of course for the flavor it gives. But adding the heavy molasses to the batter deflates some of the air that’s been beaten into the butter, so I add baking soda to make sure that the cake has a light, porous texture.
Butter will cream most easily when it’s at room temperature, about 70°F. At this temperature, it’s pliable enough to trap air into the batter. Make blending easier and the batter smoother by being sure that the eggs and molasses are also about the same temperature. If they’re too warm, they could melt the butter; too cold and they’ll make the butter hard again.
Because molasses is slightly acidic, this recipe calls for baking soda. The alkaline soda reacts with the acid to produce carbon dioxide, which causes the cake to rise. The baking soda also neutralizes some of the acid flavor in the molasses.
To be sure that the cake rises properly, bake it right after mixing the batter. The baking soda will start to produce carbon dioxide the moment it touches the acid in the molasses: if the batter stands long before baking, it will release too much carbon dioxide into the air, and little will be left to leaven the cake.
Gingerbread any time of day
My favorite way to eat gingerbread is with lots of whipped cream—a soothing foil to the spicy cake. I sweeten the cream with maple syrup rather than sugar. The earthy maple flavor goes wonderfully with gingerbread. Served plain with a cup of tea and a good book, gingerbread is a restorative snack. I never worry about leftovers; toasted gingerbread slathered with butter is this baker’s favorite breakfast.