Thursday, March 1, 2012

English Gingerbread for an American Kitchen

One of my favorite recipes for gingerbread is English cookbook author Delia Smith's "Damp Gingerbread".  I first discovered this recipe in Laurie Colwin's essay—More About Gingerbread—published in the January 1993 issue of Gourmet Magazine.  You can also find it in Colwin's wonderful little book, More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen.  Colwin description of this gingerbread—"moist and velvety"—would probably have been enough to get me to try it.  But the fact that the recipe was of British origin really tipped the scales in its favor.  When I found the recipe I had only recently returned from cooking school in London and was missing many of the foods that I had discovered there.  I have made this cake many times since.  Even though I will never stop collecting recipes for gingerbread (I love gingerbread), this one is especially nice—simple, spicy, "moist and velvety."

Recently I was struck by the desire to make the recipe for "Damp Gingerbread" a little more user friendly for American cooks.  One of the things that makes this recipe particularly British is that it uses Lyle's Golden Syrup.  Golden syrup is a British product—a syrup produced during the sugar refining process.  It is sometimes called "refiner's syrup".  To my knowledge, there really isn't an American equivalent.  

Molasses—also produced during the refining process—is what Americans typically use in gingerbread.  Less sweet than golden syrup, molasses is also much darker and has a slightly bitter edge to it.  American gingerbread recipes are tailored to work with the characteristics of molasses....not refiner's syrup.  In order to make this version of gingerbread, you really do need Lyle's syrup.  

Finding the syrup is not too big of a hardship—it is widely available in the states.  The problem arises from the fact that it is expensive and the original recipe requires just a bit more than one jar.  If you want to make this cake, you have to purchase two jars...and then you will have a lot left...but not enough to make another cake...  There are of course other things to do with golden syrup—most Americans just aren't in the habit of doing these things.  Altering the recipe to use exactly one jar of Lyle's Golden syrup seemed like a good way to make this recipe more appealing to American bakers. 

After several trials, I did finally come up with a recipe that uses one jar and has the taste and texture that I was aiming for.  However, I find that I am unable to explain why my recipe works.  Gingerbread, as it turns out, is a deceptively simple cake.  This particular one is astonishingly easy to make (using something Irish Cookbook author Darina Allen calls the "molten method"—a simple two step operation of mixing melted fat and sugar syrup with the dry ingredients, followed by the egg and dairy), but understanding what is going on in the realm of chemistry is beyond me.  I found that the right flavor is dependant not only on the sugar syrup (or molasses) and spices, but also on the interaction of the leavener with the (acidic) syrup/molasses.  The unfortunate reality is that many recipes for gingerbread produce very tasty cakes that sink in the middle.  (If you take a random look at blog posts on gingerbread you will frequently find statements to this effect: "Tasted great....sank in the middle.")  Typically a sunken center is a sign of over-leavening.  Adjusting the leavener to prevent this produces a cake with a slightly dryer texture and a flavor that is disappointingly mild—which I find to be unacceptable.  

If you make the gingerbread recipe as printed below, it will produce a "moist and velvety" cake with the intense flavor that you expect from gingerbread.  It is also possible that it will dip just slightly in the center.  Since in the process of testing the recipe I produced several cakes that had what I could only call craters in the center, I consider this a victory.  If you make the cake...and it does sink a isn't the end of the world.  This is such a homey sort of cake, it is unlikely that you would ever present it at the table as a whole cake.  Certainly anyone enjoying the slices you give them would never know that there was a slight dip in the center.  You could also cover the cake with a nice frosting of some kind—in which case the cake could be made to appear level.  As a bonus, the recipient of the center square would get a bit more frosting than everyone else.  I can assure you that I would be more than happy to take that piece. 

English Gingerbread Cake

1 stick (4 oz.) unsalted butter
1 jar (11 fl.oz./1 1/3 cup) Lyle's Golden Syrup
2 c. (230 g.) all-purpose flour
1/2 t. salt
1 t. baking soda
1 T. ground ginger
1 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. cloves
1 egg
1 egg yolk
3/4 c. (180 g.) buttermilk

Butter a 9-inch square baking pan, line with parchment, butter the parchment and then flour the pan.  Set aside.

Melt the butter with the golden syrup in a medium saucepan and set over moderate heat.

In a small bowl, whisk the egg and yolk together.  Whisk in the buttermilk.  Set aside.

Place the dry ingredients in a large bowl and whisk to combine; make a "well" in the center. Pour the hot butter/syrup mixture into the "well". 

Whisk the dry ingredients into the syrup mixture, moving from the center out, until the batter is smooth and well-blended.  Switch to a rubber spatula and stir the egg/buttermilk mixture into the batter until thoroughly combined.  

Pour the batter into the prepared pan. 

Transfer to a 350° oven and bake until the cake has just begun to pull away from the sides of the pan and a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean—about 40 to 45 minutes.  Let the cake cool in the pan for 10 to 15 minutes. 

Run a knife around the outside of the pan and turn out onto a wire rack.  Cool the cake, right side up, on a wire rack.   Serves 9 to 12.


Anonymous said...

I made long-cooked broccoli with finely diced preserved lemons stirred in at the end. I served it tossed with pasta, as you suggested. My family had seen it cooking, and no one was enthused about trying it--until they ate their first bite. Every speck of it disappeared, and I already have requests to have it again next week. What a luscious way to serve broccoli!

Paige said...

Thank you so much for letting me know! I love the addition of the preserved lemon!

Angela said...

This was nothing short of amazing. I'm enjoying a fresh piece out of the oven now. Thanks for the recipe!

Paige said...

Angela, Thanks for letting me know you tried this!...and that you liked it!