Black, sticky and gingered-all-over

I had been gathering gingerbread recipes like cobwebs or kitchen paraphernalia so, when December arrived, I knew a thorough sweep was in order. I armed myself with bitter-black molasses, ginger in all its incarnations and a good amount of butter. Every week, a new batch, wafting spice and sticky sugar, sat cooling on the kitchen counter.

The first recipe up to bat was a home-run! Pitch-black with a crunchy, caramelized cover that hid its feathery soft insides. The slice I hid at the back of the fridge only got better as it slumped into itself, deeper and denser. Second to hit was a mild-mannered brown number with a lick of golden syrup and sunken cranberry bottom. Next up was an education as Caitee learned that gingerbread is not only a kind of cookie dressed like a man (or boy), but a type of cake! I discovered that applesauce can't be hurried, particularly when using four varieties of apples. Our cake was made partially with kamut flour, barely sweetened with applesauce and distinctly spiced with a blend of aniseed, allspice, black pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg and finely ground coffee. A pumpkin gingerbread followed almost immediately. Then a player on a diet that included mustard, coffee, even cardamom, but barely an ounce of butter. It didn't make it past third so the crumbs were folded into a tangy, tiny-bit-boozy ice cream reminiscent of eggnog. Finally, on Christmas morning, there was a gingerbread that was all balls, risen (perhaps not to its full potential) with the help of yeast, drowning in caramel. Monkey balls were the main topic of conversation for the next few days.

You know what? I'm not sick of gingerbread. In fact, I'm already collecting recipes for next year. The competition is heating up! Do you have any gingerbread recipes you want to throw into the fray? As for this year, I'd say the starting batter, black, sticky and gingered-all-over, was the hands-down winner.

Black Sticky Gingerbread

In the interest of eating as many different kinds of gingerbread as possible I divided this recipe by two and baked it in an 8-inch square pan. The only tricky part was halving the eggs. I usually crack an egg into a bowl on top of a scale to figure out how much it weighs, then take away half of it to use in an omelette or some other baking project. Also, I used buttermilk instead of milk with no adverse side effects. I didn't line my pan with parchment either but I buttered it very thoroughly.

1 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup water
3/4 cup unsulphured blackstrap molasses
3/4 cup flavourful honey
1 cup tightly packed dark brown sugar
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp ground ginger
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp allspice
1/4 tsp ground cloves
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup milk
1 packed tbsp freshly grated ginger root

Preheat the oven to 325 F, with a rack in the centre. Butter and line a 13 by 9 by 2-inch baking pan with parchment so it hangs over by a few inches, which will help you remove the cake from the pan later.

Combine the butter, water, molasses, honey and brown sugar in a medium, non-reactive saucepan and place over low heat. Stir frequently until the butter is just melted and all of the ingredients are well blended. Remove from the heat, pour into a large bowl and set aside to cool.

Meanwhile, combine the flour, baking soda, salt, ginger, cinnamon, allspice and cloves, and set aside. When the molasses mixture feels just warm to the touch, add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Add the milk and stir to combine. Fold the dry ingredients into the batter but don't be concerned if you can't get every little lump out. Stir in the grated ginger.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 45 to 60 minutes. The baking time depends on your oven and the shape of your pan. It's ready when the top of the cake springs back after you've touched it.

Allow the cake to cool for 10 minutes, then, using the overhang of parchment, lift the cake out of the pan and cool completely on a wire rack before cutting.

Serve with whipped cream, if you like. This cake gets better with age and, if refrigerated, its texture becomes  deliciously dense and sticky.

Enough for 12 to 16 people.


The most wonderful time of the year

It only comes about once a year. Sugarplums, snowflakes, nutcrackers, candied orange peel, bows, bells, baubles and holly. Christmas. This year, mine was a collaboration between two families in a cozy, rain-flecked cabin on Bowen Island. Everyone pitched in to put a rich, rainbow of a feast onto our forks, into our bellies. 

Sean started us off with all kinds of good stuff - caramelized onions, blue cheese and roasted apple - in one bite. I laid out a spread of prosciutto and fiery-orange persimmon slices to nibble on before supper. There was the usual last minute kerfuffle as gravy was whisked into existence, Brussels sprouts hit hot bacon fat, steel carved into meat and tin foil fought to keep everything warm. When the dust settled there was dinner to be had. Purple potatoes mashed with a bit of celery root, courtesy of Dad and Daniel. Sweet squash mash from David who also handled the Brussels sprouts (with a little help from his friends). A medley of beets, carrots and parsnips, thanks to Anne. Christmas coleslaw, a la me. Tart cranberry sauce, a rosemary-scented, garlic-studded heck of a leg of lamb, complete with sauce, all Simon. A delicious turkey, missing only one wing, with great gravy, that'd be Mom. Stuffing, Pamela. Hot, tender, tear-apart oatmeal molasses rolls, yeah me. I'm an overachiever.

Given the option, I like to call dibs on the salad course at these Christmas/Easter/Thanksgiving extravaganzas. It's always nice to provide a light and fresh antidote to all the usual rich fare on offer as well as something more exciting than say spinach salad. (Not that I be hatin' on the spinach). I look for a salad that is simple and sturdy enough to stay put, given the vagaries of the occasion, but that can also be made partially, or even totally, in advance. This Thanksgiving it was a shaved Brussels sprouts salad and at Christmas it was this coleslaw. It was a bit brighter, tarter than your typical coleslaw but sure tasty. It had shreds of cabbage and crispy, sweet kohlrabi. Vitality from a generous amount of alfalfa sprouts with a whiff of royalty from rubied sour cherries.

All from my current culinary crush, a man I've been rather enamoured with lately. It's actually been going on since last Spring. Prawns with Fennel, Feta and Pernod. Rhubarb and Beetroot. Chicken Salad with Sprouting Broccoli and Sorrel. I never failed to be intrigued by the fusion of disparate ingredients and whiff of exotic spices that emanated from his weekly column at the Guardian. I queued at my local library (position 72) for a chance with his new cookbook Plenty then, tummy-rumbling, bookmarked half the recipes. Mango and Coconut Rice Salad. Sweet Potato, Dried Persian Lime and Quinoa. Cardamom Rice with Poached Eggs and Yogurt. During the Summer, while in London, my brother and I visited one of his locations for brunch and couldn't resist picking up lunch which fueled our brisk (and ultimately blistered) tour of the town. Beetroot, Plum and Feta Salad. Melt-in-your-mouth marinated Eggplant. Spiced Potato Wedges. Who is the man behind all this? None other than Yotam Ottolenghi. I've already given you one of his recipes, but how about one more?

Cabbage and Kohlrabi Salad
From Plenty

A few days after Christmas I made this salad again but added celery, which blended right in and provided more juicy crunch. Leftovers taste even better the next day, despite the sprouts becoming a bit soggy, and are excellent crammed into a turkey sandwich. Finally, while typing the recipe out I noticed that I didn't follow the last step in which you transfer the salad to a serving bowl, leaving most of the juices behind. The salad was still scrumptious.

1 medium or 1/2 large kohlrabi
1/2 medium head green cabbage (about 1/2 pound total)
large bunch of dill, roughly chopped (about 6 heaping tbsp)
1 cup dried whole sour cherries
grated zest of 1 lemon
6 tbsp lemon juice
1/4 cup olive oil
1 garlic clove, crushed
salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 cups alfalfa sprouts

Peel the kohlrabi and cut into thick matchsticks that are about 1/4-inch wide and 2-inches long. Cut the cabbage into 1/4-inch thick strips.

Put all the ingredients, apart from the alfalfa sprouts, in a large mixing bowl. Use your hands to massage everything together for about a minute so the flavours mix and the lemon can soften the cabbage and cherries. Let the salad sit for about 10 minutes.

Add most of the alfalfa sprouts and mix well again with your hands. Taste and adjust the seasoning; you need a fair amount of salt to counteract the lemon.

Use your hands again to lift the salad out of the mixing bowl and into a serving bowl, leaving most of the juices behind. Garnish with the remaining sprouts and serve at once.

Serves 4, or more if it's part of a feast.

End Note: I just realized I seem to have a penchant for gay, British food writers.