A Super-Dark, Intensely Spicy Gingerbread For Your Holiday Table

Kathryn Dillon

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A decade ago, I embarked on a quest to find the perfect gingerbread. I’m not talking about any old gingerbread here. I like my gingerbread dark and spicy. In fact, I’d really like it to knock me on my butt.

For most people, gingerbread is a winter holiday dish. I almost always make it around Christmastime. But it will always remind me of my mother’s birthday, which happens to be in the spring.

Though dessert in its traditional form did not make frequent appearances at our family dinner table when I was growing up, each of us was allowed to choose a favorite treat for our birthday celebration. And my mom, with the exception of that year she was dieting and we all ate raw whole apples with candles stuck in them (served to a soundtrack of indignant howls from my sister and me), always picked gingerbread.

I don’t know which recipe she used. And I’m appalled at the realization that, to my recollection, my family selfishly allowed this amazing woman to bake her own birthday cake year after year. But I do remember how much I loved gingerbread — the spiciness, the deep flavor of molasses, and the way the whipped cream slid off the top when the cake was served warm from the oven.

Researching recipes over the years, I found myself disappointed by versions that were tasty but a bit lackluster. In my humble opinion, gingerbread needs to be something more. It shouldn’t just hint at subtle spices. It should pack a wallop.

So when I decided to take gingerbread to a pre-Christmas gathering in 2010, I started looking through recipes to figure out how to improve upon the standard. As I pondered exactly how much ginger would be too much, the latest issue of Cook’s Illustrated arrived.

I’ve always loved Cook’s Illustrated because they do the experimenting for me. They’re not pretentious about it. They make 57 batches of gingerbread until they get exactly what they’re looking for. And here, they were looking for something very spicy, almost primal.

As is sometimes the case, the recipe was a little bit scary. (Black pepper? Really?) But the result was exactly what I wanted. Beautifully dark, spicy, slightly sticky gingerbread where (get ready for it…) ginger is the real hero.

In fact, I liked it so much I took the recipe home for Christmas, and my mom baked it for our holiday meal. Since then, she’s let me make it for her a time or two!

Spicy Gingerbread Cake (adapted from Cook’s Illustrated)

I’ve adjusted the recipe a bit, as I almost always do!

The original version calls for 3/4 cup stout, preferably Guinness. This could be fabulous. I wouldn’t know. For some reason, I just didn’t want to use stout the first time I made it, so I substituted water. I didn’t miss the stout but feel free to try it.

The spice in this recipe comes from ground ginger, grated fresh ginger, and ground black pepper. It is quite spicy, so please experiment based on your palate. I cut the pepper in half the second time I made it but found I missed the extra spice. This year, I’m going to toss in some finely minced crystallized ginger along with the molasses and sugars, for a new flavor dimension.

Have you noticed, I really love ginger?

I also used half regular and half blackstrap molasses. I know blackstrap can be bitter, but for this cake, it seemed just the ticket.

Cooking It Up:

Preheat the oven to 350 with a rack in the middle position. Bring 3/4 cup water (or stout) to a slow boil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Remove from heat and stir in 1/2 tsp baking soda. (If you’re using stout, the mixture will foam.) Stir in 1/3 cup regular molasses, 1/3 cup blackstrap molasses, 3/4 cup brown sugar, and 1/4 cup granulated sugar until it dissolves. This is also where I will add the crystallized ginger if I decide to do so. I’ll likely use somewhere between 1/4 and 1/2 a cup, finely minced.

In a large bowl, whisk together 1 1/2 cups unbleached flour, 2 TB ground ginger, 1/2 tsp baking powder, 1/2 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon, and 1/4 tsp ground black pepper.

Place the water or stout mixture in another large bowl. Whisk in 2 large eggs, 1/3 cup vegetable oil, and 1 TB finely grated fresh ginger. Whisk the wet mixture into the dry mixture in relatively equal thirds, whisking until completely smooth after each addition.

Transfer batter to a greased and floured 8-inch square baking pan. Tap the filled pan against the counter a couple of times. According to the recipe, this will remove any large air bubbles that may have formed during the whisking. Bake for 35 to 45 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack for an hour or so. Serve warm or at room temperature, topped with whipped cream if you desire, and enjoy the explosion of flavor!

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I live and write in Northeast Ohio, about everything from food to mental health, pets to relationships, music, art, and sports. My articles usually have a personal slant because I believe we as a society and as individuals grow stronger through truth-telling and connection.

Cleveland Heights, OH
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