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Laurie Colwin died when I was eleven years old, a time in my life when my most foodie-ish action was to write to my local Subway sandwich shop, concerned with whether the tuna they served was dolphin-safe (it was).
So it wasn’t until a couple of decades later in my life that I became aware of her by name, and it wasn’t until this year that I read her work—for our Cookbook Club this summer.
I flew through those books and couldn’t help desperately wishing she was still alive and writing. Her voice was comforting and familiar, and I felt myself agreeing with her at every turn, often with an excessive amount of mental exclamation points:
"I could wander around the markets figuring out that night's dinner. In foreign countries I am drawn into grocery shops, supermarkets and kitchen supply houses." And, "it's what people eat and how they eat it" that makes a culture. Yes, so much yes!! Some (many?) of my favorite travel memories are tied to food.
"It was years before I could come out and say how much I hated stuffing... Holiday after holiday I would push my portion around on my plate... It was clear that I was in opposition to a national tradition.” What?! Me too! Well, this one only partially counts, because she eventually found a stuffing she liked and I recently did too, but I’m still considering us anti-stuffing soul sisters.
"The underlying reality here is that for all our food processors and fancy food stores, our connection with food is really very low.” Yup. Decades later and we’re doing better, but this is still sadly all too true.
I could go on, but you get the idea. I nodded along with Colwin all the way through both books and felt like I’d found a new friend in her words. And when a friend talks about making something over and over again, you make it: Time to bake some gingerbread.
Nevermind that I’d never had gingerbread in cake form and I was used to associating "gingerbread" with anthropomorphic cookies. Colwin reassured me that it wasn’t my fault: “The sad fact is that gingerbread is on the decline, although it is alive and well in the children’s books of the fifties, where cheerful housewives wait at home for the arrival of their hungry children at three o’clock, ready with a great big pan of warm gingerbread and some ice-cold milk.”
With a full handful of her gingerbread recipes to choose from, clearly there needed to be a definitive ranking of Colwin’s gingerbreads—one of them had to be the best. But a ranking based on only my opinions seemed unfair, so with the help of a dozen testers (maybe I had the twelve days of Christmas in my head?), myself included, I set out to bring about a gingerbread revival.
Although there was a winning cake, and a couple that didn’t rank quite as highly, there aren’t truly any losers here—we’re talking about cake after all.
No matter which cake is your spirit gingerbread, you really can’t go wrong. They’re all so good that coming up with a definitive ranking really resulted in splitting hairs over levels of goodness and the final numbers were all very close. Should you decide to give the taste-test a go yourself, keep in mind Colwin’s three gingerbread conclusions:
- The ground ginger has to be very fresh. If you have any doubt about when you bought your jar, buy a new one.
- Don’t use a light hand when measuring the ginger. Colwin found that most recipes were far too timid with the amount called for, and she ended up doubling or tripling the amount until she settled on her perfect number: a heaping tablespoon. Feel free to adjust up or down to taste.
- If possible, use Colwin’s favorite stand-in for molasses. “Besides the ginger, the heart of gingerbread is molasses. Now, there is molasses and molasses and there is the King of Molasses, which is available in the South but virtually unknown in the North.” She is referring to Steen’s Pure Ribbon Cane Syrup, of which she says: “You do not need Steen’s to make gingerbread, but I see it as one of life’s greatest delights: a cheap luxury.”
And now, to the cakes!
Cake #1: Gingerbread with Chocolate Icing (from Home Cooking)
Should you decide to follow this recipe to the letter, it will require the most advance preparation of all the cakes. Colwin calls for lemon brandy in the ingredient list and provides the recipe for making it yourself: “I also add two teaspoons of lemon brandy, a heavenly elixir easily homemade by taking the peel from two lemons, cutting very close to get mostly zest, beating up the peels to release the oils and steeping them in four ounces of decent brandy.” Easy enough, but you’ll want to do so about two weeks ahead of time to make sure the lemon flavor is infused. The chocolate icing then calls for vanilla brandy (same concept as the lemon brandy but with cut-up vanilla beans instead of lemon peels). Colwin does provide substitutes for both of these homemade brandies (hence the asterisk in my
handy nerdy chart below), but if you want to use them, plan ahead. Luckily, both brandies will be useful long beyond the cake—perhaps in a hot toddy package for a host or hostess gift this holiday season?
While you can use molasses to make this gingerbread cake, Colwin strongly suggests procuring Steen’s Cane Syrup (hence another asterisk for “hard to find ingredient” on the chart); it's easily enough obtained on the internet, but not as easy to find in your local market.
The chocolate icing was met with mixed reviews. Some testers loved it, while others felt that chocolate and gingerbread were an odd combination. The strong divide resulted in this cake tying for last place. Still, it's the cake to serve to chocolate lovers, kids (my 4-year-old loved it), people who think cake without icing isn’t cake, and those who are open to strong flavors in unique combinations.
Cake #2: Nutmeg Cake (from TheFoodMaven.com)
Okay, technically this isn’t a gingerbread cake—it doesn’t even call for ground ginger—but it uses the same warm spices as the other cakes do, and since this is my game, I decided it counts. This cake comes to us via New York food expert Arthur Schwartz. Apparently Colwin had a friend, Janice Bracken, who professed not to be able to bake. This was distressing to Colwin, who brought this cake to Bracken and told her that it was to be her cake and her specialty, she would never publish the recipe. And Colwin didn’t, but Bracken did share the recipe with Schwartz—he published it on his website, TheFoodMaven.com.
This cake tied for last place in the lineup, but I’m positive that its low ranking is due to my error—I forgot to add the baking soda. I didn’t realize it until too late, and I didn’t have time to make it again for the testers, but I decided to see what they thought of it anyway. It turned out more like a bar cookie, with its crisp, crumbly crust and a moist, decidedly un-cake-like topping. The flavors were great, but the texture threw off the testers. A later re-do—with the baking soda—went over much better. Testers still loved the cookie crust, but they were now fans of the slightly spongy cake too, praising its spicy, not-too-sweet flavor.
This cake doesn’t call for any out-of-the-ordinary ingredients: You probably have all of them on hand right now. And while it does have warm, wintry flavors, it doesn’t scream “HOLIDAY,” which is why this is the cake you’ll turn to long past December, all throughout the cold weather season.
Cake #3: Old-Fashioned Gingerbread (More Home Cooking)
Once again, this cake has a hard-to-find ingredient: You’ll need to get your hands on Lyle’s Golden Syrup. Yes, I’m sure you can work around this, substitute something else like corn syrup, and still end up with a perfectly fine cake—but don’t. Golden Syrup’s sweet, caramelly flavor no doubt adds a certain special something to this dense, chewy, currant-studded cake. Testers liked the “fudgy consistency,” calling it “satisfying” and “moist,” and one person wished they could snuggle up with a slice by the fire. It earned a solid third-place finish.
This cake is just as sweet, if not sweeter, than the others, but for some reason, whether it’s the texture or the currants, this cake feels the most like it could easily slide into coffee cake territory. This is the cake to serve for breakfast, throughout the holidays and beyond.
Cake #4: Gingerbread with Lemon Icing (Home Cooking)
This is actually the same cake as the Gingerbread Cake with Chocolate Icing, just with a different frosting, so once again, this cake involves potentially planning ahead for the homemade lemon brandy (here, it’s used in the icing as well) and sourcing Steen’s Cane Syrup.
I didn’t give testers a heads-up regarding any flavors, so most expected a plain vanilla or cream cheese frosting and were caught off guard by the intense lemon flavor—in a good way. Testers were mostly pleasantly surprised, saying it was “refreshing,” “a nice spin on a traditional holiday dessert,” and “heaven!” It even won over a lemon dessert derider, who called it “lovely” while simultaneously questioning, “How do I like this?” It was the surprise and delight of cakes, earning it a solid second place finish. This is the cake to serve after a heavy meal for a lighter finish.
Cake # 5: Damp Gingerbread (More Home Cooking)
There's no way around it: The name is unfortunate to be sure. Try and name one positive association with “damp”—it’s hard. Luckily, this cake can be the first. The cake embodies what Colwin loves about gingerbread: It’s “moist, spongy, and spicy.” It’s like the Goldilocks of gingerbread cakes: it’s not too dense nor too airy, and it’s spicy enough to let you know that you’re eating a wintery cake, but not so spicy as to be overwhelming.
This cake easily won first place, with testers saying it was a “classic” with “great texture.” It’s lovely served all on its own, but should you prefer cakes with adornment, one tester suggested a adding a simple cream cheese frosting; I think it’s perfect with a dollop of whipped cream.
- 9 tablespoons butter
- 1 1/2 cups (12 ounces) Lyle's Golden Syrup
- 2 cups plus 2 tablespoons flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 3/4 teaspoons baking soda
- 1 tablespoon ground ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 egg
- 1 cup milk
Have you made any of Colwin’s gingerbread cakes? Which one are you partial to? Tell us in the comments!