At this time of year, I find my thoughts turning to gingerbread. The scent of gingerbread, for many of us, evokes the whole holiday season: gingerbread cookies, gingerbread houses, even gingerbread-spice lattes. Gingerbread has been associated with winter celebrations since the Middle Ages, and has had supernatural connections dating back much further yet.
The first records of baked gingerbread go back to 2400 BCE, and through the ages it has been associated with religious worship, ceremonies, and celebrations. Gingerbread houses were first made in Renaissance Germany; the originals were decorated in gold leaf. In Britain, Guy Fawkes Day is observed on November 5 with fireworks, bonfires, and "parkin", a variant of gingerbread made with oats in addition to flour.
Not surprisingly, gingerbread also shows up in fairy tales. Some of those stories are pretty dark. The Gingerbread Man does not end happily. Hansel and Gretel starts with parental abandonment, and devolves through hunger and cold to end with cannibalism and a particularly gruesome execution of a wicked witch. Even among other Grimm tales, this one seems like a shoe-in for Least Appropriate Story for Children, Ever.
L. Frank Baum believed that modern times called for modern fairy tales, and that modern pedagogy had obviated the need to scare the daylights out of innocent children. He rewrote The Gingerbread Man as John Dough and the Cherub, a children's full-length novel in which John Dough escapes being eaten and becomes a king.
My very favorite gingerbread story is "Mrs. Corry" from Mary Poppins. Mrs. Corry is the proprietor of a dark little shop displaying "rows and rows of dark dry gingerbread, each slab so studded with gilt stars that the shop itself seemed to be faintly lit by them." Mrs. Corry is a sort of benevolent witch: she is so old she remembers when the world was made, and her fingers are sticks of candy. After eating the delicious gingerbread and stowing away the gilt stars, Jane and Michael fall asleep. But late that night, they awaken to see Mary Poppins and Mrs. Corry, atop impossibly tall ladders, pasting the gilt stars into the night sky. "As each one was placed in position, it began to twinkle furiously, sending out rays of sparkling golden light." And that's it. That's the whole story, really. Just a light shining in the darkness, and the wonder of the wide night sky.
On a recent chilly day, I mixed up a batch of gingerbread of my own. Instead of "dry slabs" I made moist little cakes, with a lemon sauce on the side. Delicious for snacking or dessert, these little gems have the scent of childhood: warm, spicy, and sweet. Enjoy them in the chilly days and nights ahead, with tea or mulled wine, or a cup of hot cider.
This is a gluten-free recipe. If you do not want a gluten-free gingerbread, you can use all-purpose or cake flour, and omit the xanthan gum.
I used "Grandma's Old-fashioned Molasses" for this recipe. The original recipe called for New Orleans black molasses, which is darker and has a stronger flavor. I haven't tried that, but I imagine it would also be good. If you try it, please let me know what you think.
You can also bake these as 6 regular cupcakes, rather than 18 mini-cakes. The larger cupcakes will take an additional 5 minutes or so to bake.
Cream cheese icing is also good on gingerbread. And if you want to make your own little gilt stars, you can cut them out of slices of candied ginger, using a tiny star-shaped cookie cutter.
Gingerbread (which is more like cake than bread, and tastes more like molasses than ginger) is such a staple of traditional baking that every cookbook has a recipe (if not several), and every cook of my mother's generation seemed to have a favorite recipe she swore by. This one is based on "Favorite Gingerbread" in Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book, from which I also got the lemon sauce.
Jane and Michael Stern, in Square Meals, speak well of a gingerbread recipe they adapted from The Household Searchlight Recipe Book. I'll try that someday soon and let you know.