The cold weather months will now be with us for the near future, so we might as well pull on a warm sweater and embrace the approaching winter. At Christmas, gingerbread makes its most impressive appearance.
Over the course of gingerbread’s history, its form varied from location to location. In some places, gingerbread was a soft cake, while in others, it was a crisp, flat cookie; in still other places, the treat came as a warm, thick square of bread. Gingerbread was sometimes light and sometimes dark, sometimes sweet and sometimes spicy.
Gingerbread making in North America has its origins in the traditions of the many settlers from all parts of Northern Europe who brought with them family recipes and customs. American recipes usually called for fewer spices than their European counterparts, but often make use of ingredients that were only available regionally. Maple syrup gingerbreads were made in New England, and in the South, sorghum molasses was used. Regional variations began occurring as more people arrived from Europe. In Pennsylvania, the influence of German cooking was great and many traditional Germany gingerbreads reappeared in this area. Nowhere in the world is there a greater collection of gingerbread recipes than in America —there are so many variations in taste, form, and presentation.
Ginger, a highly prized, peppery spice, has been valued for its calming effect on the digestive system and its ability to stimulate circulation. Spices give any gingerbread its delicious aroma and memorable taste. Ginger is the spice you will find in every gingerbread recipe. It comes from the knobby rhizome of a tropical plant and has a peppery zing and spicy scent. It comes fresh, ground, or crystalized. Fresh ginger, known as gingerroot, is an underground stem. When choosing fresh ginger, it should be plump and feel heavy and firm. The tan skin should not be wrinkled. The root will keep up to three weeks. Fresh gingerroot should be stored in the vegetable bin of the refrigerator; for longer storage wrap it in a plastic bag.
Ground ginger is dried gingerroot that has been finely ground. It should not be used as a substitute in recipes that call for fresh ginger. The flavors of fresh and dried ginger are somewhat different. Crystalized ginger is sliced fresh ginger that has been cooked in sugar syrup and coated with granulated sugar. It can be enjoyed as a snack or as a flavorful baking ingredient.
Some other common spices used in gingerbread recipes are cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom, and allspice. Cinnamon is available in ground form and in a stick. For baking, you should use ground cinnamon. Nutmeg adds a nutty, sweet spiciness to gingerbread. It comes ground or in kernels. The kernels have a lacey covering, known as mace. Mace has a light, cinnamon like flavor and is already ground when purchased. Cloves can be purchased whole or ground. They are highly aromatic so the quantity of clove used in recipes is usually small. Cardamom is from the seed pods of a plant related to ginger. It resembles a gentle ginger with a touch of pine or a hint of eucalyptus. Cardamom is available as pods, seeds or ground. Be conservative when using cardamom because it can be quite overpowering when over-used. Allspice has the fragrance of cloves, the flavor of cinnamon, and the pungency of nutmeg. It is not a blend of “all spices”. Allspice can be purchased as whole berries or ground.
Some sweeteners used in gingerbread recipes are molasses, honey, maple syrup, and brown sugar. Molasses is the most associated with gingerbread. Light molasses, a mild molasses, comes from the first boiling of the sugar syrup. Dark molasses, a full-flavored molasses, comes from the second boiling of the sugar syrup, and is the most popular molasses used in gingerbread recipes. Blackstrap, the thick, dark and somewhat bitter molasses, is from the third and final boiling. Blackstrap gives gingerbread recipes the dark color and strong flavor. If you like lightly flavored gingerbread cookies, try light molasses. If you like a strong molasses flavor in your gingerbread, try dark molasses.
Flavors of Honey
There are several flavors associated with honey, since each flower type adds its own subtle flavor and fragrance. Orange flower honey is the most popular type used in baking.
Pure maple syrup is far superior in taste compared to maple-flavored syrups. It is graded according to color and flavor. The highest grade is AA or Fancy, and is light in color with soft, smooth taste.
Brown sugar comes in light or dark grades; it is a mixture of granulated sugar and molasses. The darker the color, the stronger the flavor.
Gingerbread is a quintessential part of the holiday season and this spicy sweet treat is sure to please. Dense, spicy, chewy, and comforting all come to mind when enjoying a gingerbread confection. There are many ways to enjoy gingerbread. Make gingerbread biscuits, brownies, cakes, candies, cheesecakes, cobblers, cookies, crepes, cupcakes, donuts, ice creams, lattes, loaves, muffins, pancakes, puddings, scones, trifles, waffles, and wassail. Surprise your family with a gingerbread food or beverage that will add a bit of sugar and spice and everything nice to their day.