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May 26, 2022

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Bring on the Spice: Spicy gingerbread cake beats the winter blahs

By , Columbian staff writer
4 Photos
With a half-dozen spices and dark molasses, this old-fashioned gingerbread is Christmas on a cake stand.
With a half-dozen spices and dark molasses, this old-fashioned gingerbread is Christmas on a cake stand. (Monika Spykerman/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Christmas means gingerbread, no two ways about it. I’m talking not just about the shaped and frosted cookies but also about the soft, dark brown cake filled with aromatic spices. It’s my husband’s favorite and it’s among my favorites, too, so I can’t for the life of me figure out why I’ve never made it. Well, I suppose it’s because I bought it instead. We lived in Pasadena, Calif., in the early years of our marriage, and there was a natural foods store up in the Sierra foothills that used to sell the most marvelous, moist and perfectly spiced gingerbread cakes by weight. Portions of all sizes would be tightly wrapped in clear plastic and placed in a large barrel, waiting for sweet-toothed customers from October through January. I haven’t tasted that gingerbread in a reindeer’s years but I still remember cozy winter evenings with my husband, snuggled on the couch with mugs of hot tea and a slice of gingerbread each, watching holiday specials on TV.

This year is the year that I’m going to make some, though. Gingerbread — a truly ancient food that dates back to the first-century Armenian monk Gregory of Nicopolis — is needed in Washington far more than it ever was in southern climes. California winters were child’s play compared to this long, gray, wet season that requires waterproof boots, a bleak sense of humor and a tolerance for heavy gloom. Washington winters demand fortification with ginger, cinnamon and the dark, toasty sweetness of molasses.

Yes, it’s time to bring on the spice, and to bring it with enthusiasm. I’m using my mother’s recipe as inspiration but I’m taking the recipe’s ½ teaspoon each of ginger and cinnamon as a suggestion. I’ll be adding cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, allspice and even black pepper, a spice we associate with savory foods but found in many Christmas cake and cookie recipes, like German pfefferkuchen or Norwegian pepperkaker. Even if you opt out of this veritable spice-o-rama and just stick to cinnamon and ginger, I heartily recommend using either fresh minced ginger or ginger paste. The paste, which is available in most markets’ produce section with the fresh herbs, is a touch milder than minced ginger so feel free to increase the amount to 2 generous teaspoons.

If using minced ginger, be warned that the root can be tricky to peel, with its barklike skin and branching nooks and crannies. Just get in there as best you can with a paring knife or vegetable peeler. When you’ve got all the brown bits off, you can either grate it on a cheese grater’s smallest holes or you can mince it by cutting it first into slices, then cutting each slice into slender stems, then cutting the stems crossways into tiny squares. Whatever ginger you don’t use can be stored in your refrigerator in a plastic bag with the air pushed out. If you blot the ginger dry before storing, it can last for a good three weeks to a month. If you freeze it, it will last six months.

Now, let’s get baking. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and grease an 8-by-8-inch pan. Put ½ cup (1 stick) of softened butter in a bowl and gradually add ½ cup sugar, creaming it with a hand mixer until light and fluffy. Add 1 teaspoon vanilla, 2 eggs and ½ cup molasses. Mom’s recipe calls for light molasses, but I’m going dark here because I want a gingerbread that’s nearly as dark as a snowman’s coal-nugget smile. If using fresh ginger or ginger paste, add it now. Beat everything together thoroughly. Set aside.


½ cup sugar

½ cup (1 stick) butter

2 egg

½ cup molasses

1 teaspoon vanilla

1½ cups flour

½ teaspoon salt

¾ teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon fresh or powdered ginger or 2 teaspoons ginger paste

1 teaspoon cinnamon

¼ teaspoon each cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, allspice and black pepper

½ cup boiling water

In another bowl, sift together 1½ cups flour, ½ teaspoon salt, ¾ teaspoon baking soda and all your spices: 1 teaspoon cinnamon and ¼ teaspoon each nutmeg, allspice, cloves, cardamom and black pepper. The black pepper will mellow a bit during baking. It won’t take away from the sweetness but it will add a pleasant, tingly heat.

Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients slowly, alternating with dribbles from ½ cup boiling water, beating after each addition. (This gives the gingerbread a delightfully light and fluffy texture.) When everything is well-blended, pour it into the greased pan and bake for 35 to 40 minutes or until a toothpick in the center comes out clean. When it’s cooled, dust the cake with powdered sugar. Put on the tea kettle and your coziest sweater, then cut two big squares and cuddle on the couch with whoever you love most. If winter is a challenge, you just found the best way to beat it.


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