This is some serious gingerbread

by Terry B on May 7, 2008

Dark molasses, black pepper and Chinese five-spice powder make for big-flavored gingerbread with plenty of spicy bite. Recipe below.

As you’ve no doubt noticed by now, I hardly ever bake. Fortunately for me—and for you—Marion does. Wonderfully. So I’ll just get out of the kitchen and let her take over this week.

I know it’s May, but it’s become cold here again. Spring had a few tentative successes—the young leaves started emerging, all soft and green, the small brown birds came back and began claiming real estate and singing to each other, pollen floated from the trees and we put away our duvets and down coats and brought out the light blankets and the little thin jackets. Then on Friday, it rained—where we were, it rained a lot and the atmosphere was quite unsettled—and then the temperature dropped very aggressively. Last night, shivering and muttering, I gave up and dragged the duvet out for what I hope will be its last hurrah.

On the other hand, I also resumed baking gingerbread. The ancestor of this recipe originally came to us from one of the Silver Palate cookbooks, 15 or so years back. Over the years I’ve monkeyed with it in a number of ways—different sweeteners, varying volumes of spices, assorted toppings and accompaniments. Certain failed experiments included butter, orange peel, raisins, honey. Crystallized ginger was added, then rejected. It’s gone through a lot in our hands. For the past few years, this is the version I’ve almost always made.

There are plenty of gingerbread recipes that call for light molasses and a teaspoon of ginger and a pinch of cinnamon and maybe quickly hold up a nutmeg in front of the oven while you’re baking the bread: Bland to the vanishing point. To me if you are serious about gingerbread, you don’t use recipes like that. Just make yourself some white bread toast. Gingerbread to me is about bite and spiciness. I am looking for high impact power gingerbread.

This is intensely flavorful, and it doesn’t have the high-fat challenge of a cake or pie. It’s a great casual dessert, ideal to end a family dinner or a simple brunch. The ancestor recipe called for a lemon glaze, which in this evolved version is unnecessary. I myself like this gingerbread cut into squares and served plain, along with a cup of coffee or a glass of cold buttermilk [and, sadly, I am the one person in our entire family who likes the latter]. It’s good with whipped cream, it’s great with vanilla ice cream or a delicate nutty gelato, like hazelnut. It’s also one of those things that, eaten for breakfast, cheers you up inordinately even though it may not be the most healthful way to start the day. Not as evil as cold pizza or leftover devil’s food cake, but just as alluring.

We love this recipe in the cold months, but honestly, we have it any time of year.

Marion’s Gingerbread
Makes one 8×8 gingerbread

1-2/3 cups unbleached flour
1-1/4 teaspoon baking soda
4 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 heaping teaspoon five-spice powder
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt

1 egg, lightly beaten
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup molasses [dark, also called “robust”]
1 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons boiling water
1/2 cup vegetable oil, plus oil for the pan

Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Prepare an 8 x 8 baking pan by oiling the bottom and sides.

Grind the pepper [See Kitchen Notes].

Into a large heatproof bowl, sift the flour, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon, five-spice powder, pepper and salt.

Break the egg into a separate medium bowl; whisk the egg. Then add in the sugar, mixing until everything is an even lemon yellow. Add the vanilla and molasses and mix well [See Kitchen Notes].

Put the oil and water into a small saucepan and set it over a low flame. If it begins to boil before you are ready to use it, turn off the heat.

Pour the egg-sugar-molasses mix into the flour mix. Stir thoroughly. It will resist you and at first will seem ragged; when everything is mixed together, it will be very stiff.

When the batter is thoroughly mixed together, bring the oil-and-water to a boil (see Kitchen Notes, and I mean it) and pour it quickly and all at once into the batter. With a wooden or bamboo spoon, stir thoroughly until the batter is smooth [it may be helpful to use a whisk to accomplish this]. The batter will quickly become shiny and rather liquid.

Pour the batter into the prepared baking pan and place it straight into the preheated oven on the center rack. Set a timer for 30 minutes.

The cake is ready when a tester inserted near the center emerges with just a few crumbs on it, and it has begun to pull away from the sides very slightly.

Cool the cake in the pan on a rack. You can serve it still warm or cool. This gingerbread is so moist and intense, and the top maintains a wonderful slight stickiness.

Kitchen notes

The black pepper/five-spice powder duo can be changed to entirely one or the other.

When sifting, if any of the black pepper is so coarse that it remains behind in the sifter, dump it into the mix. Don’t leave it behind.

I used to grill salmon fillets with a crust of fresh ground black pepper and enlist whatever kids were hanging around the house at the time to do the grinding. How much pepper do you need to coat six salmon fillets? When two kids are grinding away, about seven minutes’ worth. Thanks, kids.

Molasses loves to stick to anything, including your measuring cups. When you are measuring out the liquids, first measure the water and pour it into the saucepan. Then measure out the oil in the same cup and pour it into the saucepan. Then measure out the molasses. The oil residue will help it slide out of the measuring cup.

When bringing the oil and water mix to a boil, be very, very attentive—the liquid will quickly start this ominous big scary-movie bubbling, and even if it is amusing it is also not that safe and you don’t want to let it go on for very long. Once the liquid starts bubbling, it is definitely ready for your next step.

Often when I make this, I use a square Corningware pan with a glass lid—ugly but functional. Of course don’t bake the gingerbread with the lid on. Use the lid later, once the cake is completely cooled, to preserve the moistness.

Also this week in Blue Kitchen, 5/7/2008

RIP, The Spindle: Big art in Berwyn dies. The world becomes a little more bland as an unusual landmark in suburban Chicago is demolished to make way for yet another Walgreens. Yeah, that’s progress, at WTF? Random food for thought.

Buddy Guy: Chicago blues, alive and real. Recorded here at his Chicago blues club, Buddy Guy Live: The Real Deal, lives up to its name, at What’s on the kitchen boombox?

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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Ginny May 7, 2008 at 3:55 am

I love gingerbread!!!!! This looks amazing!!! I agree that strong flavors are essential for good gingerbread!

Susan at StickyGooeyCreamyChewy May 7, 2008 at 5:31 am

This is one gutsy gingerbread! I love the bold flavors and the deep rich color. It sounds wonderful!

grace May 7, 2008 at 9:48 am

the smell of gingerbread as it bakes, cools, and makes its way to my mouth on a fork is very dear to me. the taste is pretty special too. :)

Julia May 7, 2008 at 2:57 pm

for some reason this is calling out to me to transform them into gingerbread cupcakes with vanilla icing and red hots on top!

Mike of Mike's Table May 7, 2008 at 3:02 pm

This looks like my kind of gingerbread! It looks delicious (although you lost me at drinking a glass of buttermilk! :o ). I always loathe the bland gingerbreads…it seems like such a creation that is impossible to make bland, but more often than not…

Kari May 7, 2008 at 3:56 pm

I love the five spice powder with the “classic” gingerbread spices. I am always looking for recipes that use five spice powder. This also looks incredibly moist, which I love.

Alanna May 7, 2008 at 6:59 pm

Ditto the appreciation for flavor-forward recipes –

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) May 7, 2008 at 8:35 pm

I love gingerbread that has a real kick — this definitely fits the bill! Five-spice powder is such a nice addition.

Terry B May 8, 2008 at 3:46 am

On behalf of Marion, thanks, everyone! Julia, there are a number of ways to dress this up, I suppose, but we’re always too impatient to do anything but eat it while it’s still warm.

Mike—I’m with you on the buttermilk.

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types May 8, 2008 at 1:02 pm

I have been looking for a reason to used that jar of 5-spice powder in the pantry. How perfect would this be??!!

Mary Coleman May 8, 2008 at 1:47 pm

I love any and all types of gingerbread. Can’t wait to try this!
A blop of creme fraiche on the side would be lovely as well.

Terry B May 8, 2008 at 3:19 pm

T.W.—And once you start playing with five-spice powder, you’ll find lots of excuses to experiment with it.

Mary—Creme fraiche would indeed be lovely with this, or as Marion suggests, a dollop of whipped cream.

carolyn May 8, 2008 at 6:22 pm

Wow! I haven’t thought of gingerbread in years. What a great idea.

My Sweet & Saucy May 8, 2008 at 8:31 pm

What a fun and different gingerbread recipe! I love how you spiced it up!

brilynn May 8, 2008 at 9:38 pm

5 spice would be great in there!

ann May 9, 2008 at 12:55 pm

Oh my! I love drinking buttermilk! I never thought of trying to pair it with something, but this just seems like such a logical fit.
It’s nasty cold and rainy here today. I wish I could stay home and make this, but alas. I’ll have to file it away for another rainy day. Thanks guys :-)

Jenny May 9, 2008 at 7:26 pm

This looks excellent! Gingerbread is one of my favorites.

Toni May 11, 2008 at 5:36 pm

I adore gingerbread, and like you, I’m not interested it if it doesn’t wake up my mouth with a shout! This is going to become part of my kitchen staples.

Oatmeal Cookie Guy May 13, 2008 at 8:06 pm

Adding the pepper is a stroke of genius!

Samantha May 20, 2008 at 1:41 pm

I really really loved this.
I made it for my family last weekend.
I didn’t have dark molasses, so I used light.
However, I quadrupled the 5 spice powder.
It’s really good with yogurt and mangoes.
=]

heather May 22, 2008 at 4:30 am

oh my gosh that looks good! i love the color. it looks so rich and tasty!

Anali May 24, 2008 at 4:31 pm

Although I think of gingerbread as a winter food, this is a nice change of pace. I love to see baking here and gingerbread is one of my absolute favorites. : )

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