What comes to mind when you think of gingerbread? Perhaps you, too, envision gingerbread cake, dark with molasses and warm with spices. Then again, maybe crispy, crinkle-topped gingersnaps come to mind. Or perhaps you recall baking and decorating cutout gingerbread girls and boys at Christmas. And who could forget gingerbread houses? Whether decorated with gumdrops, pretzels, and candy canes, or with fancy sugar work and marzipan, these whimsical structures take homemade gingerbread to an entirely new level of artistry and skill.
Most of us have come to think of gingerbread as an exclusively fall and winter dessert, and understandably so. Who wouldn’t want to cuddle up by the fire with a batch of soft molasses cookies or a warm square of fragrant gingerbread cake? With its many enticing varieties, however, gingerbread certainly deserves to be celebrated year-round. Whether you like your gingerbread vibrant with spices or delicately perfumed, warm right out of the oven or firm and chilled from the freezer, there are plenty of ways to enjoy it no matter the season.
There are the gingerbreads that hail from other parts of the world.
Orange-scented, honey-sweetened cookies called Lebkuchen date back to fourteenth-century Germany. Pain d’épices, from the Burgundian region of France, is a sweet spice bread flavored with honey, citrus, and aniseed. Siena, Italy, boasts panforte, a spicy fruit-and-nut confection. And fruitcake, the traditional British Christmas cake, is dense with dried fruit, fragrant with spices, and cloaked in marzipan and rolled fondant. Indeed, there are many more examples to be had, but you get the idea. Gingerbread encompasses a wide variety of sweet, spicy treats, many of which date back centuries.
The history of gingerbread is a long and colorful one, indeed. Native to Indo-Malaysia, ginger has been cultivated in subtropical Asia for more than 3,000 years. The Greeks and Romans, as well as the Chinese and Arabs, relished this spice, using it to flavor many sweet and savory dishes, including honeyed spice breads and cakes. By the Middle Ages, ginger was on the move. The Crusaders returned to Europe from the Middle East with ginger among their wide array of newfound foodstuffs and exotic spices. As ginger gained popularity in European kitchens, it continued to spread across the globe, as well. The Portuguese began growing a unique variety of ginger in Africa, and by the sixteenth century, the Spanish were cultivating what became high-quality Jamaican ginger in the West Indies.
Some of the early European gingerbreads probably resembled the Chinese spice breads from centuries earlier. Honey-sweetened, anise-scented pain d’épices gained great favor in France as early as 1393. At the same time, honey-based Lebkuchen was developing a following in Nuremberg, Germany, with the first recorded Lebkuchen bakers dating to 1395. Gingerbread guilds eventually formed in Reims and Nuremberg (in 1571 and 1643, respectively), revealing the authority and places of honor these bakers held in their communities.
Other medieval gingerbreads took quite different forms. In Britain, sugar- or honey-sweetened gingerbread was usually bound with bread crumbs instead of flour. Heavily spiced and often flavored with the likes of claret wine, vinegar, rosewater, and ground almonds, the batters were either beaten into stiff pastes or cooked until thickened. They were then colored or left plain, formed into shapes or pressed into decorative wooden or ceramic molds, and left to dry.
By the late seventeenth century, this medieval-style gingerbread fell out of favor, and softer baked gingerbreads sweetened with molasses and treacle began to emerge. Rolled and shaped spice cakes (cookies, really) frequently appeared in eighteenth-century British cookery books and became popular in America, as well. Eventually, though, Americans developed a fondness for even more tender gingerbread cakes. By the late 1700s, home cooks had been using pearl ash (potassium bicarbonate) for years to lighten baked goods rich with eggs, butter, cream, and sugar. However, it wasn’t until American-born Amelia Simmons published her American Cookery in 1796 that this leavener appeared in print, along with no less than five of her gingerbread recipes.
From cakes and cookies to desserts and breakfast treats to confections and ice creams to fanciful spiced structures, gingerbread takes many delicious forms. Although most gingerbread recipes call for ginger in some form (powdered, crystallized, or fresh), you will find that the ancillary ingredients are flavorfully varied. Molasses, brown sugar, and spices, such as cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and allspice, appear frequently, but not always. You will find gingerbreads sweetened with honey and golden syrup; spiced with aniseed, cardamom, coriander, Chinese five-spice powder, and mustard powder; flavored with citrus, chocolate, and rum; and textured with oat bran and almond and rice flours. Some are moist, soft, and as dark as ebony, while others are crisp, firm, and golden blond.
Equipment Needed For Making Gingerbread
The equipment you find helpful for making gingerbread will serve you well in all of your baking endeavors. Here are some pieces you like best.
With only a few exceptions, all of your recipes call for using a stand mixer-one that comes with a stainless-steel bowl and that can be fitted with paddle and whisk attachments. You can certainly use a handheld mixer if you prefer, but you often find it more cumbersome and less efficient than the stand type. you like having the freedom to walk away from whipping egg whites or a beating batter for a minute or two to attend to another task while letting the machine do the work.
Having a variety of pans at the ready is a good idea if you bake a fair number of cakes and bar cookies. With a few round cake pans, square baking pans, tube pans, springform pans, and loaf pans, you can bake practically anything. you sometimes like to use the nonstick versions of these vessels, but most of the time, you like heavy-gauge, aluminum-coated steel pans. Try not to use pans with dark finishes, as you find they result in cakes that brown too quickly in the oven.
Good-quality baking sheets are essential to successful cookies of all kinds. you suggest purchasing professional-weight baking sheets. Unlike lighter-weight supermarket types, which tend to warp after a while, these heavy-gauge baking sheets will remain flat even after years of use. you prefer aluminum-coated steel sheets to the darker types, as they produce lighter-colored cookies. Having a variety of sizes at the ready is a good idea, but you particularly like the large 17¼-by-11½-by-1-inch baking sheets (also called half-sheet pans) or 15½-by-10½-by-1-inch baking sheets the best.
BAKING SHEET LINERS
To make baking and cleanup as easy as possible, you like to line your baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone-coated liners. you find that you can reuse a sheet of parchment paper several times, and silicone liners require only a simple wipe-down or quick wash in the sink after each use.
It’s helpful to have several wire racks on hand for cooling cookies and cakes. They are also useful for glazing large or small items, allowing the excess glaze to drip neatly off of and away from the bases.
Ingredients For Making Gingerbread
Great gingerbread requires only a handful of easy-to-find, easy-to-store ingredients. Here is a basic list of what you wil need to bake a variety of successful, spicy treats.
Use all-purpose flour in just about all of your gingerbreads. Sometimes, especially in a number of gingerbread cakes, you do prefer, and call for, cake flour. Because of its high starch and low gluten content, this fine-textured flour makes for light and tender cakes. If you need to substitute all-purpose flour in a pinch, follow this method: For every 1 cup of cake flour, use 1 cup minus 2 tablespoons of all-purpose flour.
Only a few of your recipes call for almond flour, but you include it here because it really adds a lovely, mildly nutty flavor and soft texture to gingerbread. It is sold in most supermarkets (usually in the organic or health-food section) as almond flour or almond meal. The ingredient list on the package should contain nothing but finely ground almonds. If you don’t have almond flour, just grind up some almonds to as fine a powder as you can in a food processor.
Use a variety of sugars in your gingerbread recipes. Granulated sugar appears frequently, as does brown sugar. Molasses gives light and dark brown sugars their characteristic caramel-like flavors, and both impart warmth and richness to gingerbread.
To measure brown sugar, pack it into measuring cups, pressing lightly with your fingers.
Molasses is produced during the refining process of sugarcane. Sugarcane juice is boiled and reduced to a syrupy mixture, some of which crystallizes and is removed, and some of which remains in a dark liquid form. This is molasses. It is then boiled two more times. Each time, as more sugar is removed, the molasses becomes darker and increasingly bitter.
The first boiling produces light or mild molasses. It is dark chestnut in color and, as its name implies, has a mild, sweet flavor. The second boiling produces dark molasses. It is dark mahogany in color, thick, and has a more intense flavor. The third and last boiling produces blackstrap molasses. It is so dark as to appear almost black and has a very bitter flavor.
In the past, sulfur dioxide has been added to molasses to produce a clearer product, but it was found to contribute an off-putting chemical taste. Today, most molasses is left unsulfured. Readily available in supermarkets, unsulfured molasses has a purer sugarcane flavor. There are many brands from which to choose, each with a slightly different character and flavor. Have fun trying them and see which you like best.
Use whatever type of molasses you like. If you prefer a mild flavor in your baking, use the light. If you want more of an intense molasses experience, use the dark. You could even mix a little of each. The only time you specify using dark molasses is when you want to give the recipe a vibrant punch without adding too much liquid or sugar to the dough or batter. Again, use your own discretion. If you still prefer the light variety, go ahead and add it instead.
There are a number of spices you will want to keep on hand when baking gingerbread. In some cases, it is fine to purchase them already ground. Good-quality cinnamon, allspice, mace, and cloves are available already ground. Aniseed is also available already ground, or, if you prefer, grind up whole star anise instead. As for nutmeg, it might sound trendy, but you do think it’s best freshly grated. Whole nutmeg is readily available these days in gourmet stores and some supermarkets. Use a nutmeg grater if you wish, or simply use a Microplane rasp or fine-toothed grater. you like to store your whole and ground spices in jars and keep them in the refrigerator or freezer to prevent them from spoiling quickly. Stored in this way, they should keep fresh for at least several months.
Ginger, of course, holds a special place among the other spices, given its significance to the character and flavor of gingerbread. Use ginger in several forms: ground, crystallized (candied), and fresh. Each contributes a particular personality to gingerbread. Ground ginger is robust and peppery. Crystallized ginger is fresh ginger that has been cooked in sugar syrup and coated with sugar. It can be mild or quite hot and adds a sweet-pungent flavor to cookies and cakes. When roughly chopped, it lends a pleasantly chewy, sugary texture to these items as well. Fresh ginger can be grated into doughs and batters, but you prefer to infuse it into liquids. It contributes a soft spiciness when steeped in the milk or cream component of a recipe and a sharper, hotter flavor when infused into sugary glazes and syrups. Whether you purchase young or spring (thin-skinned) ginger or mature (thick-skinned) ginger, choose pieces that are firm and smooth. Ginger that is wrinkled will inevitably be dry and tough. Wrapped well in plastic wrap or sealed in a zip-top bag, fresh ginger will keep fresh in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks.
All of your recipes call for large, room-temperature eggs. Not only will cold eggs fail to contribute as much volume to a cake batter as room-temperature eggs, but they also are more difficult to incorporate into a fluffy mixture of butter and sugar, often causing it to appear curdled. Egg whites should also be warmed to room temperature. They will whip up into fluffier, fuller meringues than whites that are firm and cold right from the refrigerator.
To warm chilled eggs quickly and easily, immerse them in a bowl of warm water for about 10 minutes before using them.
As stated in the recipes, always use unsalted butter, as it allows you to control the saltiness of a dish yourself.