In Ruth Reichl’s first novel, Delicious!, the protagonist coyly alludes to a secret gingerbread recipe. At the end of the book, she shares it.
Reichl joins a large, diverse party of writers who’ve referenced gingerbread in a non-cookbooks. There’s Chaucer ( “royal spicery/ Of gingerbread that was full fine/ Cumin and licorice, I opine…”), Shakespeare (“…had I but one penny in the world, thou should’st have it to buy gingerbread”), e e cummings (“here is little Effie’s head/whose brains are made of gingerbread”), Nathaniel Hawthorne (“…he.. was seen executing his world-renowned dance, in gingerbread”). Even Thoreau, in Walden, as he considers friendship (“… perhaps he loves you, but he may also love gingerbread.”)
One is tempted to ask, who doesn’t?
Gingerbread was baked by English (and, later, American) bakers, and those of Germany, France, Scandinavia, and, earlier, of 10th century Chinese; possibly, say some food historians, even ancient Egyptians. Only bread itself has an older recorded history, as literary reference and narrative how-tos.
Clearly, then, humans cannot live by bread alone. They like a little spice.
14th century British Isles medieval gingerbreads were dense, chewy, very sweet, little resembling the two we know today, one a cookie (sometimes used in the construction of edible holiday houses), the other a cake (airy, high-rising, tender, often molasses-y).
Cake-style gingerbreads started appearing in European recipe collections in the 18th century. The taste for gingerbread traveled on the Mayflower, making itself at home in the American colonists. It was so well-loved that Amelia Simmons’s 1796 American Cookery included five versions, none of them much like Ruth Reichl’s gingerbread in Delicious! , which contains grated orange rind, and freshly ground black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves. It’s a bundt-cake, saturated after baking with bourbon syrup, then drizzled with orange glaze. It might border on excess (I don’t know, I haven’t made it yet).
But I understand the impulse to tinker: the ginger (warming, fragrant, excitable) and cake (sweet, soothing) radiate adaptability. It’s hard to resist playing with them, as I did when I decided to de-acquisition it from Christmastime’s heavy, dark flavors.
Here is my more delicate gingerbread, perfect for warmer months, somehow as spring-like as fresh asparagus.
Irresistible White Gingerbread with Lemon: makes 8 wedges
This buttery cake is a rethink of gingerbread. I ix-nayed molasses, added lots of
lemon — the paper thin slices, rind and all, decorating the top, are especially nice, I think. I cut most all non-ginger spices except cardamom, which is both floral and lemony. The ginger itself is in three forms: crystallized, dried, fresh. A plain-looking dessert so simple it’s sophisticated, it is already rich; whipped cream or ice cream would be overkill (though a good tart lemon sorbet might be nice). But in general, I serve it either unadorned, or with a pile of mixed unsweetened berries.
Make it either in a deep 8-inch pan (such as a cast-iron skillet), or a conventional cake pan 9 inches in diameter.
unflavored cooking oil spray
3/4 cup butter, slightly softened
1 cup + 2 tablespoons sugar
finely grated rind of 1 lemon
1 to 1/2 1/2 tablespoon finely grated fresh ginger-root
1 to 1 1/4 teaspoon dried ginger
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
3 large eggs
1 1/2 cup sifted unbleached flour
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 to 1 ounce tender crystallized ginger pieces, cut in 1/4 inch dice
1 lemon, rind and all, sliced paper thin, deseeded (you’ll have some left over)
a teaspoon or two coarse sugar, such as turbinado, optional
powdered sugar, optional
1. Preheat oven to 350. Spray an 8-inch round cake pan with oil. Set aside.
2. Cream together until slightly fluffy the butter and sugar. Beat in the eggs, grated lemon rind, and fresh and dried ginger, and cardamom.
3. Combine, and sift together flour, baking powder, and salt. Sprinkle this over the butter-sugar-egg mixture. Stir to incorporate wet and dry ingredients, then stir in the diced crystallized ginger.
4. Transfer batter to prepared pan. Arrange the thinly sliced lemon rounds over the top decoratively, and if you like, sprinkle with the coarse sugar.
4. Bake for 45 to 55 minutes, or until cake is firm and fragrant, and an inserted toothpick tests clean. If you use the 9-inch pan, check the cake at 35 minutes; if you use a deeper 8-inch pan, it will run to the longer time.
5. Serve, ideally still warm, if you like with a little powdered sugar dusted over each slice. Berries on the side? Optional; pleasing.