This time of year, I crave old-timey gingerbread that warms and perfumes the house as it bakes; it’s the perfect cold-climate cake. Not too sweet and immensely flavorful, gingerbread matures and mellows over time so that it tastes even better several days after it’s made, if you can stand the wait. Gingerbread freezes beautifully.
My favorite recipe is inspired by Amelia Simmons’ “American Cookery,” first published in 1796. It calls for rye flour and beer because back then, rye defined baking as well as drinking.
In this recipe, the stout adds zing, but just about any dark beer will work. The rye flour’s flavor is slightly fruity and nutty, and because it contains less gluten than wheat flour, it makes for denser, tastier baked goods.
While rye flour is not the best pick for light, airy cake and bread recipes, it is perfect for gooey, finger-licking, sticky gingerbread. Brownies, too! Find rye flour in the bulk section of natural food co-ops or in one-pound bags in the baking section of grocery stores.
Molasses is at the heart of most gingerbread recipes, but I’ve found that local sorghum is a better choice. Less bitter than molasses, it’s nutty and complex tasting. Sorghum is amber colored and thick, and it gives the cake a moist richness. (Try it drizzled it over pancakes, waffles, biscuits and cornbread.)
Though it is associated with the South, sorghum is being grown in Minnesota and Wisconsin. The tall plant resembles field corn, with a cone-shaped head that’s filled with tiny, BB pellet-sized seeds.
Sorghum cane is pressed to extract the juice that’s then simmered into a syrup. Sorghum grain makes a delicious porridge, and it’s an alternative to rice.
The original recipes for gingerbread called for local maple sugar, a delicious alternative to the more-familiar brown sugar. Maple sugar adds a woodsy, maple note to breads, cakes and cookies. Try substituting it one-to-one in any recipe calling for light brown sugar. It’s available in the bulk sections of natural food co-ops or the baking aisle of most supermarkets.
The lovely plainness of gingerbread is a perfect match for that strong cup of morning coffee, or with a dark beer and sharp cheese as the sun goes down. As spring creeps closer, day by day, slather a slice with tart berry jam, curl up with a mug of tea and relax in the ginger-laced comfort.
Beth Dooley is the author of “In Winter’s Kitchen.” Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.