Gingerbread is one of those holiday treats that shouldn’t be restricted to the months of November and December. Don’t you agree? And yet, it does have a special appeal during the cooler months. There’s nothing quite like beginning a crisp November morning with a confectioners’ sugar dusted piece of gingerbread, perhaps served with a dollop of whipped cream and a hot cup of coffee. Mmm mmm.
I sometimes wonder how foods became associated with particular seasons. Gingerbread, for instance, originated in the kitchens of ancient Greeks and Egyptians for ceremonial purposes and was brought back to Europe by 11th-century crusaders returning from the Middle East. How did it go from exotic foreign food that only the rich could afford to a scrumptious staple on the Thanksgiving – and especially Christmas – table?
Your guess is as good as mine, though I think gingerbread’s eventual popularity had to do with its incredible flexibility. The earliest recipes were made from a thick paste of ground almonds, stale breadcrumbs, honey and ginger that was pressed into wooden molds. Each mold had a shape carved into it, so when the gingerbread was unmolded after baking it could be displayed as an edible work of art with the likeness of a ruler or a religious scene carved into it. These molded confections bore little resemblance to bread and were originally called “gingerbras,” an Old French name that meant “preserved ginger.” But over time gingerbras became gingerbread, and the name stuck.
In the 16th century breadcrumbs were replaced with flour and eggs were added to the mix, creating a lighter, fluffier product. It was Queen Elizabeth I who is credited with the first gingerbread man though. Her cook took the tradition of molding gingerbread a step further by presenting visiting dignitaries with gingerbread men shaped in their own likeness. Neat! Still doesn’t explain the Christmas connection though. In fact, once gingerbread men were introduced to the masses they became tokens of love presented to sweethearts at fairs, tied up with pretty ribbons. But given the ease with which gingerbread can be shaped – not to mention the invention of gingerbread houses – I guess its association with one of the most festive holidays around was inevitable.
Modern gingerbread is most often made with flour, spices, ginger and molasses. The addition of molasses came about in the late 17th-century, when cooks began using it as a substitute for honey when making a German honey cake known as lebuckhen. Gingerbread cookies were a popular Christmas creation during the American colonial period because the ingredients were relatively cheap, they were easy to make and the dough was resilient enough to withstand both brick-oven and cook-stove baking.
Learn more about molasses and its fascinating history in this Baking and Books post from the past: Anita’s Molasses Spice Cookies.
Last week I succumbed to my craving for gingerbread by making the Gingerbread Pear Cake you see here. With its fluffy texture, soft pear slices and pronounced flavors of ginger and raw sugar, it took an extra bit of will power not to eat the whole thing myself. (A task made extra tough by the fact that my husband doesn’t like gingerbread so it was mine, all mine!) If I didn’t have my heart set on making a Pumpkin Cheesecake with Gingersnap Crust and a Blackberry Pie for Thanksgiving, I might add this cake to the menu.
This will probably be my last post for November so don’t forget to enter the book giveaway for this month! Also, to those of you celebrating Thanksgiving tomorrow, I hope you have a beautiful holiday filled with warm company, good food and great conversation. Happy Thanksgiving!
Gingerbread Pear Cake
Adapted from this Martha Stewart recipe
- 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for pan
- 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for the pans
- 1 cup boiling water
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 2 teaspoons ground ginger
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 2/3 cup packed dark-brown sugar
- 1 cup unsulfured molasses
- 1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger
- 2 large eggs, room temperature, lightly beaten
- 1 large Bosc pear
- Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting
- Whipped cream, optional
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a 9-by-13-inch cake pan or a round, springform cake pan. Set aside. In a bowl, combine boiling water and baking soda. Set aside.
In a large bowl, sift together flour, ground spices, salt, and baking powder together. Set aside.
In an electric mixer with the paddle attachment, cream butter until light. Beat in brown sugar until fluffy. Set aside.
Peel, quarter and cut the pear into thin slices.
Add the molasses and grated ginger to the brown sugar mixture, beating to combine. Add the baking-soda mixture, and flour mixture, combine. Beat in eggs.
Pour batter into prepared pan and evenly sprinkle the pear slices on top of it. Bake for 30 minutes or until the cake begins to firm up around the edges. Tent with tin foil and bake for another 15 to 25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool on a wire rack, then cut into squares or slices. Dust with confectioners’ sugar and serve with whipped cream.
Gingerbread Recipes on Other Blogs: