Gingerbread: Comfort takes the cake

January 11, 1995|By Cathy Thomas | Cathy Thomas,Orange County Register

For many of us, warm gingerbread slathered with delicate dollops of whipped cream or teamed with sauteed apples or poached pears is comfort food at its all-time best. Not to be confused with the dense, brittle cookies cut into fanciful shapes, cake-style gingerbread is dark and moist, generally baked in square pans and served warm.

For gingerbread fiends, the scent of warm cake redolent with ginger, molasses and cinnamon is one of life's great pleasures; the taste divine.

Making gingerbread from scratch isn't at all complicated, but to ensure the best results, use the freshest and best ingredients available.

Fragrant, fresh ground ginger is very important. If you have a half-consumed bottle of ground ginger that has been hanging around since the Reagan administration, give it the boot. Ground ginger loses its gusto after nine months to a year.

As for molasses, it comes in three basic forms: dark molasses is darker, thicker and less sweet than the milder-flavored light molasses; blackstrap molasses is very thick, dark and on the bitter side. Blackstrap molasses is rarely used in baking.

The robust flavor of dark molasses makes it perfect for gingerbread; however, light and dark molasses are interchangeable in most recipes. Whether molasses is labeled "sulfured" or "unsulfured" has to do with how it is processed. In general, unsulfured molasses is lighter and has a cleaner sugar-cane flavor.

Although the square configuration is most typical, gingerbread can assume a log shape when baked in a jelly-roll pan. Rolled warm in a towel that has been dusted with powdered sugar, the made-from-scratch gingerbread is allowed to cool completely. Unfurled, it can be filled with sauteed apples and whipped cream; rolled back into a jelly-roll shape, the log can be refrigerated for several hours.

But you can whip up a simpler version using a packaged mix and a simple cream-cheese frosting.

Gingerbread mix? Gingerbread aficionados might scoff, but for those of us in the kitchen trenches juggling Herculean schedules, it's not bad. Really.

I add a pinch of ground ginger to the packaged mix and add flavor pizazz with cooked apples and pears. The fruit seems to perfectly showcase the spices in the gingerbread.

A wedge of gingerbread-from-the-box becomes downright elegant when served with a pear that has been poached in a sauce made from red wine and frozen raspberries. The warm gingerbread rests in a puddle of syrupy, claret-colored sauce so delicious it would be tempting to serve it in a soup bowl. The poached pear, now crimson from it's poaching, rests beside the cake. A spoonful of whipped cream and a sprig of fresh mint

finish the dish. Palate nirvana.

Glamorous gingerbread? It can happen. Baked in a jelly-roll pan, a thin sheet of gingerbread can be filled with cream-cheese frosting, whipped cream or sauteed apples and sweetened whipped cream. For the most elegant presentation, arrange nonpoisonous leaves on top of gingerbread and a few surrounding the gingerbread (flat, smooth leaves are the best), with the top side of the leaves placed down. Place powdered sugar in a small sieve and shake it over the cake and surrounding leaves. Carefully, using the tip of a small pointed knife to help you lift one edge, remove the leaves. Garnish with clean, nonpoisonous leaves and edible flowers, if desired.

Here's the recipe for the made-from-scratch version. The faster version, made using a packaged gingerbread mix, follows.

Gingerbread Log With Sauteed Apples

Makes 10 servings

butter or margarine for greasing pan

parchment paper (see note)

4 large eggs, separated

1 cup sugar, divided use

pinch of cream of tartar

1/4 cup cornstarch

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 cup molasses, unsulfured preferred

powdered sugar, to dust towel and for garnish

FILLING:

Sauteed Apples (recipe follows), cooled

2 cups whipping cream, chilled and whipped until stiff with 1/4 cup powdered sugar

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a jelly-roll pan (15 1/2 -by-10 1/2 inches) with butter or margarine. Line with parchment paper, leaving a 2-inch overhang on the short sides; grease the paper.

In a large bowl, beat the egg yolks with 1/2 cup sugar until fluffy and light-yellow color. In a separate medium bowl, combine cornstarch, flour, ginger, nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon; stir to combine. Fold dry ingredients into egg yolk mixture. Add molasses and fold in until well-blended.

In a separate, clean bowl, using a clean beater, beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar until soft peaks form. Gradually add the remaining sugar a little at a time, beating until stiff, glossy peaks form. Fold 1/4 of egg-white mixture into the batter, then gently fold in the remaining egg-white mixture.

Smooth mixture into prepared jelly-roll pan, spreading it evenly with a rubber spatula. Bake in middle of a 350-degree oven for 15 to 17 minutes or until paper pulls away easily at the sides of the pan.

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