She envisions candying citrus peels and pickling cherries in maraschino liqueur in her tiny kitchen for the fruitcake. She dreams of eating hunks of gingerbread with bits of spicy sugared ginger for breakfast and sipping peppermint tea, while beautifully wrapped gifts lay under her tree. Except, she can never get her act together in time.
This December, things would be different.
She enlists the help of some elves—otherwise known as Justin and David—who have hearts of gold. David also has a heart that is slightly blackened and a wee bit cynical. Justin’s heart commonly includes the characteristics of an eighty year old grandfather and it would bleed cloves and molasses if it could. She loves this about them. She finds these traits beyond endearing.
And so she is happily lured into an eight hour Christmas baking project. The sweets list includes peanut brittle; fancy glass-bottomed walnut polvorones; gingerbread (finally); and sugar cookies laced heavy-handedly with peppermint icing reminiscent of Dr. McGillicuddy’s mentholmint schnapps. (You can probably guess which elderly elf was behind the menthol.)
Sinatra’s “Christmas Waltz” plays nearly every hour as the delicate dance of Christmas cookie madness carries on. The day is filled with joyful laughter, some Christmas traditions of yore made anew again, and a frosting of good old-fashioned holiday bitterness. And, oh yes, there is also gingerbread.
The gingerbread is dark and laced with cloves, cinnamon, and ginger. It’s dense and assertive in its flavors. It’s everything a good gingerbread should be. It also includes a deep espresso icing as a wonderful compliment: for the day of Christmas baking, as well as for the gingerbread itself. This icing is not to be left off. Trust the elves on this one.
So while there is no fruitcake this year, our little friend is not worried. There is always next year. Right now there is the reminder of a month filled with really wonderful Christmas memories. And if this happens to involve some gingerbread, well then, that’s just icing. Wishing you and yours the same thing too.
Gingerbread with Espresso Glaze
Adapted from Joanne Chang's Flour: Spectacular Recipes from Boston's Flour Bakery + Cafe
For the cake
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
3 tbsp freshly grated ginger
3.5 cups flour
1 tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp kosher salt
2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp freshly ground grains of paradise (or black pepper)
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cloves (freshly ground, if possible)
1.5 cups unsulfured molasses
1 cup boiling water
1 tsp baking soda
For the espresso glaze
1 cup confectioners' sugar
2-3 tbsp espresso
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a 9 x 13 baking dish (or alternatively some smaller dishes, such as brioche tins, as pictured). Using a stand mixer with a paddle attachment, cream butter and brown sugar together until light and fluffy (about 2 minutes). Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk together grated ginger and eggs. On low speed, slowly add the egg mixture to the creamed butter mixture until combined. Scrape the sides of the bowl and beat again to ensure the mixture is fully blended.
In a medium bowl, sift flour, baking powder, salt, ground ginger, grains of paradise (or pepper), cinnamon, and cloves. In another medium bowl, mix molasses, boiling water, and baking soda together. (The mixture will foam up quite severely.)
On the mixer's lowest speed, add about 1/3 of the flour mixture to the creamed butter mixture and mix; add in half of the molasses mixture until well combined (scraping down the sides as necessary) and then add in half of the remaining flour mixture until combined. Add the rest of the molasses mixture, mix well, and then add the remaining flour and mix until combined (about a minute or so), stopping to scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl to ensure everything is well combined. (Lots of combining going on.)
Bake for 50-60 minutes (or less if you are using individual tins: ours took about 40 minutes). Meanwhile, make the espresso if you do not have any on hand. The cake is done when it spring back or a cake tester comes out clean. Let cool on wire racks.
Whisk the confectioners' sugar and espresso together until it is smooth and pourable. While the cake is still warm, pour glaze over the top and let sit for one hour before serving.
Makes one 9 x 13 cake (or a number of smaller cakes: hard to say when you start snacking)
-If you don't have access to espresso, you can brew double strength coffee as a substitute.
-The cake can be stored airtight at room temperature for up to three days. I've stashed my leftovers, frosted and all, in the freezer and they've still been quite good.
-Grains of paradise are a little bit more floral than black pepper. I had some around and thought, what the heck, it will be a nice change of pace. Don't make a special trip for the grains.
-This is another instance where Ms. Chang is queen. Her recipes still have yet to do anything but please. I think her cookbook has been the best investment I've made all year. (Santa, not to be too bossy, but if you are in need of last minute gifts for others: take note.)