The word gingerbread probably conjures up all sorts of lovely images. Quaint little men wearing bow ties and elaborately decorated houses, dripping with white frosting icicles. Or perhaps it's just a plate of Granny's favourite gingersnaps, warm from the oven. But did you realize that gingerbread can also be a cake?
I lived a good two-and-a-half decades not knowing there was a cake form of gingerbread. Then a boyfriend with a sweet tooth asked me to bake his favourite treat for him. When I asked whether he wanted round cookies or little men, he said he wanted the squares you serve up with a fork. At a loss, I turned to my cookbooks and hoped I would find the thing he wanted. I found a recipe in my trusty Betty Crocker cookbook, and served it up warm with a whipped cream topping. It was heaven!
Whether you call it pain d'épices (French: “spice bread”) or mjuk pepparkaka (Swedish: “soft pepper cake”) if you're a fan of the sweet spices we associate with Christmas, you really ought to try this baked confection. It's easy to make from ingredients you probably have on hand, and it will surely become one of your favourite comfort foods.
Zingiber officinale is a plant in the same family as turmeric, cardamom, and galangal – all of which are also used in cooking and medicines. It is also related to the beautiful red ginger flower, which is used as an ornamental plant.
Credit: Belizian/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0The rhizome has been used since ancient times, both for medicinal purposes and in the flavouring of food. Today ginger is used in the cooking of savoury meat dishes, in tea, in soft drinks, and in both alcoholic and non-alcoholic versions of ginger beer.
And of course, it is a crucial ingredient in a number of baked goods. Many of these are crisp cookies, often those served specifically during the Christmas season. There are a wide variety of recipes originating in different European countries. The gingersnap is well known in English-speaking countries, but is far from being the only such treat.
History of Gingerbread
In ancient times the inhabitants of Greece made a cake from breadcrumbs and honey flavoured with spices. It's unclear whether that confection had any ginger in it, but the same type of breadcrumb and honey base was featured in a 15th century English recipe. There are still variants on this base used in European countries today.
Ginger is a plant native to China. Its root has been used since ancient times, both as a medicine and as a flavouring in foods. Ginger root and other spices spread from Asia to Europe via the Silk Road. It was known to the ancient Greeks and Romans, but was almost lost to the Western world after the fall of the Roman Empire.
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European interest in the spice was revived through the voyages of explorers like Marco Polo, and also as a result of men returning home after prolonged contact with the Eastern world during the Crusades. As the importation of the pain d'épices to France by Gregory of Nicopolis predates these events, it is questionable whether his recipe contained the precious spices of the Orient. These may have been added at a later date.
Gregory was an Armenian priest and archbishop of a historic city near the Black Sea. In 992 CE, he retired and made a pilgrimage to the Loire Valley in France. He settled in a hermitage near the village of Pithiviers, where he led an ascetic existence and lived mostly on roots and legumes. But when he invited the priests from the local parish to share meals with him, he would bake a fine honey spice cake in the Armenian style. Gregory's guests were as impressed as I was the first time I tried my own cake. They believed it was a taste of heaven itself.
England's Queen Elizabeth I is credited with popularizing the gingerbread man. Apparently she was fond of ginger, and commissioned a batch of ginger-flavoured cookie mendecorated to resemble some visiting dignitaries. The custom of decorating ginger cookies soon caught on. There were even Gingerbread Fairs that centered around the selling of these treats, which came to be known as fairings.
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The shapes would change with the seasons, and often featured flowers or animals. Some cookies were very fancy, and were even gilded in edible gold leaf. Elaborate cookies were made all over Europe, and some are still a large part of the festive season. Speculaas, for example, are Dutch cookies that are rolled and pressed into flat molds. You have probably seen some of these cookies in the shape of a windmill.
The gingerbread house dates back to 16th century Germany, and grew in popularity after the Brothers Grimm told the tale of Hansel and Gretel. Gingerbread cake, on the other hand, has become a traditional treat on Bonfire Night in the UK. This occasion commemorates the arrest of conspirator Guy Fawkes, who was caught guarding explosives during a plot to murder King James I.
Frankie Avalon, 1958
Gingerbread has even been the inspiration for songwriter Clint Ballard Jr., who wrote the hit song “Ginger Bread.” The song about a spicy-sweet teenage girl was a big hit for singer Frankie Avalon, who recorded it in 1958.
How to Make Ginger Cake
My Betty Crocker recipe made a cake that was – well, very cake-like. It was sweet and spicy, but the mouth feel was more like a slice of vanilla cake. It was light and fluffy – less like, say, banana bread. I'm much more of a spiced loaf kind of person, so I was delighted when I found a recipe on the back of a box of candied ginger. The end product is a heavier, somewhat sticky square with the consistency of a spice bread.
Double Gingerbread Cake
1/2 cup butter, margarine or shortening
1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
2 large eggs, beaten
1/2 cup molasses
1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 tsp each ginger and cinnamon
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup boiling water
1/4 cup candied ginger, chopped*
Preheat your oven to 350ºF. Grease and lightly flour a 9” x9” pan and set aside.
Cream the butter and sugar together; add eggs one at a time, mixing well. Stir in the molasses and set aside.
In a second bowl, combine all the dry ingredients and mix well. Now you're going to add the dry mixture to the creamed mixture a bit at a time, alternating with the boiling water. It's not a large amount of flour to add, but it really will help to only add half or even a third at a time. After each addition just add enough of the water to make the batter easy to mix, and give it a good stir.
After the last addition, stir in the candied ginger. You could also add a little candied fruit or peel at this point, or some chopped walnuts. This cake really lends itself well to any kind of sticky fruit or crunchy addition, so don't be afraid to get creative!
Pour the batter into your prepared pan and pop it into the preheated oven. It will take 30-35 minutes to bake. The gingerbread is ready when a wooden pick inserted in the center comes out clean.
Cool in the pan and cut into 16 slices. These are more than generous portions! Serve warm with a little vanilla ice cream, or cool and use for a homemade snack in your kids' lunches.
* Candied ginger is available in most bulk stores and many grocery stores. If you can't find it, or you want a frugal alternative, follow the video below to make your own from fresh ginger root. This recipe would work equally well with the sugar-coated ginger, or with ginger preserved in syrup in the fridge.