Out of all the possible holiday treats, gingerbread is my favorite. But gingerbread is a loosely applied term. It can refer to cookies, cakes and breads. And if you’ve ever found yourself covered in royal icing while attempting a construction project, chances are you know a bit about gingerbread houses.
Gingerbread dates back thousands of years, with the first-known recipe popping up in Greece around 2400 BC. Although ginger root was first grown in China, it was common in the Middle Ages throughout Europe, often used in hopes of preventing the plague or to disguise the flavor of unpleasant-tasting foods. Gingerbread cookies were popular at Medieval fairs throughout England, and even Queen Elizabeth I liked to have them decorated in the shape of foreign dignitaries, perhaps popularizing the idea of gingerbread men.
Of course, we also know gingerbread from fairy tales. If you’ve ever seen the “Shrek” films, you can’t forget the interrogation scene where the gingerbread man, Gingy, begs Lord Farquaad not to rip off his gumdrop buttons. We also know what happens when Hansel and Gretel make the mistake of stopping by the witch’s gingerbread house, in the tale by the Brothers Grimm.
The kind of gingerbread I like, however, is a little different from the standard recipe. My ideal gingerbread involves plenty of molasses, ginger and other strongly flavored spices, such as black pepper and cloves. And, when it comes to gingerbread cookies, I like them more on the crunchy side, not soft. The spicy gingerbread cookie recipe from “Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook” is one of the best I’ve ever made. The cookies are dark, like the color of molasses, and have a bit of a bite to them. You can find the recipe on her website.
Too often I find gingerbread underflavored and over sweetened for my liking. I wondered how I could combat the sweetness when making a gingerbread cake for a recent party. When I came across the bag of fresh cranberries in my fridge, I realized that their tartness could be a great counter to the sweetness. I typically flavor my cranberries with some similar spices anyway.
Turns out that cranberry gingerbread cake recipes already existed. While I was hoping to create something original, these seasonal flavors make a logical pairing. I liked the looks of a “New York Times” recipe by Melissa Clark, where you make a cranberry sauce, then stir it into the batter of the gingerbread cake. Yet, it needed modifying.
At first glance, there were way too many sweeteners, with white and brown sugars, molasses and maple syrup all involved. You’d think you were making candy with all of that. I cut these back, though upped the quantity of molasses for its deeper, almost bitter, flavor. I increased the levels of the spices, both in the sauce and the cake, while also throwing in some orange juice and zest for freshness.
I made the cake again this week, and this time I’m serving it at a morning meeting. With less sugar, it eats closer to a bread than a cake.
Makes 8 – 10 servings
For the cranberry sauce:
- 12 ounce bag of fresh cranberries
- ½ cup water
- ½ cup brown sugar
- ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
- ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- Zest and juice of 1 orange
- 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
For the cake:
- 1 stick butter, plus more for greasing
- ½ cup of milk
- 1/3 cup molasses
- ¼ cup maple syrup
- ½ cup brown sugar
- 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- ¼ teaspoon baking soda
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 tablespoon ground ginger
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
Add ¾ of the cranberries and the remaining sauce ingredients to a medium sized saucepan. Place over medium low heat and bring to a simmer so that the cranberries start to pop. Allow to simmer for about 10 minutes or until most of the liquid has reduced, stirring occasionally. Mix in the remaining cranberries and cook another 2 minutes until they begin to pop. Turn off the heat, transfer to a bowl and wipe out the pan.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. To the clean pan, add the butter, milk, molasses, maple syrup and brown sugar. Heat over low heat until warm and the butter is melted. Meanwhile, grease a 9-inch square or round baking dish with butter.
In a mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda and spices. Stir in the eggs, butter mixture and fresh ginger. Mix until combined, then transfer to the prepared baking dish. Spoon the cranberry sauce over the cake batter and using a fork, swirl it in.
Transfer the cake to the preheated oven. Bake for about 45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Allow the cake to cool, then serve or cover and eat within three or four days.