Cake

The Definitive Ranking of Laurie Colwin's Gingerbreads

December 23, 2016

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.

Part of the spread at this summer's Laurie Colwin-themed dinner party.

​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.

It turns out that these guys aren't the only kind of gingerbread. Photo by James Ransom

​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.”

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“I was thrilled to see her name at the top of this lovely feature on gingerbread. It brought back wonderful memories and I am delighted that her writing and her love of home cooking is still appreciated by many, many women. Yay Food52! Enjoy your holidays...one and all. ”
— Karin L.
Comment

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.

Disclaimer:

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:

  1. The ground ginger has to be very fresh. If you have any doubt about when you bought your jar, buy a new one.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

How things get decided—with charts and colored Sharpies.
  • 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.

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.

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.

Damp gingerbread is better—much better—than it sounds. Photo by Bobbi Lin

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.

Have you made any of Colwin’s gingerbread cakes? Which one are you partial to? Tell us in the comments!

This originally ran last holiday season, we rerunning it again today so you can find the perfect gingerbread for you.

Food52's Automagic Holiday Menu Maker
View Maker
Food52's Automagic Holiday Menu Maker

Choose your holiday adventure! Our Automagic Menu Maker is here to help.

View Maker
Tags:

Join the Conversation

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Audrey
    Audrey
  • jpriddy
    jpriddy
  • Nancy Daley
    Nancy Daley
  • Nancy
    Nancy
  • Victoria Carr
    Victoria Carr
Comment
I like esoteric facts about vegetables and think ambling through a farmers market is a great way to start the day. My first cookbook, available now, is called Cooking with Scraps.

75 Comments

Audrey December 9, 2017
Thanks for the info. Haven't been able to find BRER Rabbit yet in my Walmart, I will try Amazon. I ran across a clipping containing the original recipe , I had it attached to a file card. Can't believe I still have it, it must be 40 years old by now. I never get rid of recipes. Although I may not cook much anymore I love reading them.
 
jpriddy December 8, 2017
My mother hated to cook even though she was really good at it when she bothered. She ALWAYS saved her gingerbread with homemade lemon sauce.
 
Nancy D. December 27, 2016
This one, all day long. From Gramercy Tavern via Smitten Kitchen: https://smittenkitchen.com/2008/12/gramercy-taverns-gingerbread/
It was the first I ever made, and though that first time I didn't really super extra grease the bundt pan, the smudges of warm gingerbread I scraped out were so amazing I ran right out and bought the last two containers of whipping cream from my local convenience store, the day before Christmas. That gingerbread made me not care whether other people would have whipped cream with their desserts.
 
Audrey December 25, 2016
Does anyone see Brer Rabbit MOlasses in the markets anymore? My mother also had that on hand.
 
Nancy December 26, 2016
Audrey - here is the recipe I use; found it after I wrote my post yesterday.
forums.finecooking.com/cookstalk/baking/gingerbread
I found it after I wrote my post yesterday...this is the recipe I make, with ground ginger, fresh & crystallized. Yummy!

EL - is this the same one you cited?
 
K W. December 8, 2017
Yes, you can still find Brer Rabbit molasses. I actually saw it at Wal mart too.
 
Audrey December 25, 2016
I would love the Gingerbread with three-gingers--my daughter had a recipe that I think was like that but I don't where it is.
thank you.
 
EL December 25, 2016
For the 3 ginger Gingerbread: http://forums.finecooking.com/cookstalk/baking/gingerbread

I copied it into word and it copied perfectly, so now it is in my recipes folder.

Smitten Kitchen also has one that I like the looks of: https://smittenkitchen.com/2008/12/gramercy-taverns-gingerbread/

This one is a double ginger gingerbread. I have made it and really like it: http://www.101cookbooks.com/archives/black-sticky-gingerbread-recipe.html

Also, Ruth Reichl's book "Delicious" has a gingerbread that I'd like to try, with fresh ginger and orange in it.
 
Nancy December 25, 2016
Like many of the others, I read all Laurie Colwin's books (the cookbooks and the fiction) and found her early death a profound loss.
On the gingerbread question, I currently have these favorites:
*Pain d'epice from Pierre Herme (widely available)
*Three-ginger gingerbread from the New London Inn in NH (not findable these days on the web; I could post if people want it)
*Damp Gingerbread.
On the last, however, Laurie Colwin herself acknowledged that she got & adapted the recipe from Delia Smith, who published it in her Book of Cakes (1977).
As far as I can tell from comparing the two, the only change Colwin made was to replace British mixed spice (easy to make, but not familiar to American readers) with cinnamon & cloves.
So, :) can we please call it Delia Smith's Damp Gingerbread, and honor the orignator?
http://www.deliaonline.com/recipes/books/delias-cakes/damp-gingerbread
 
Victoria C. December 24, 2016
I too love Laurie Colwin and was shocked and saddened by her untimely death. I make her Elizabeth David's Cake in More Home Cooking, and the only change I make is to reduce the amount of sugar because I find the original cake to be too sweet. I am going to try the Damp Gingerbread because I am in the middle of a search for the perfect gingerbread, and this sounds delicious. I always have Lyle's Golden Syrup in the house because (1) I can get it easily since I have a store specializing in British food close by and (2) I use it in my ice cream (Jeni's Sweet Cream Ice Cream) in place of light corn syrup, reducing the amount just a tad. You might want to try David Leibovitz's Fresh Ginger Cake; it is quite delicious.
 
Author Comment
Lindsay-Jean H. December 24, 2016
I love the idea of using Lyle's Golden Syrup in place of corn syrup in Jeni's-style ice creams, I can't wait to try!
 
Janet C. December 19, 2016
I read all of Laurie Colwin's books---I was devastated when I learned she had died. Like you, I was saddened by the fact there would be no books by her ever again.

I have to try the gingerbread cakes. My little guys are always dry and the hands or feet break off!

Jane
 
Lkgever December 19, 2016
I'm a huge fan of the damp gingerbread- just pulled out the recipe yesterday- and have found Lyle's locally. Happy Holidays!
 
foofaraw December 18, 2016
I don't have Lyle's Golden syrup but have brown rice syrup and molasses. Which one should I use (or how to combine them to get close to Lyle's)?
 
ozbaker December 18, 2016
I would use a combination of 2/3 brown rice syrup and one third molasses, as long as it's not blackstrap molasses it should turn out okay.
 
Sauertea December 18, 2016
I would use the molasses
 
cosmiccook February 27, 2016
lyle's isn't the same as Steens. You pay for shipping & product be happy to send you whatever you need. Its staple here. I love their cane vineagar!
 
EL February 26, 2016
I love gingerbread and a local bakery makes it with a sugar crust (or rather somehow they use sugar as sprinkles. I found a recipe that matches it, but cannot get the sugar right. I don't associate gingerbread with the holidays and will cheerfully eat it year round. The gingerbread that I love is intensely spiced (lots of ginger) and very dark. I'll try it with the Steen's the next time I make it.

On another note: Maybe one reason that many people hate stuffing is that they don't like the ingredients. Stuffing can be made with any starch (I use noodles for one of my most successful and made a winter squash one this year. I happen not to love chestnuts, so came up with less orthodox stuffing recipes. But if you happen not to like bread pudding (or just soggy bread), there are many, many substitutions out there.
 
Catherine February 26, 2016
I have had gingerbread on my baking list for a while. I don't think I've made it since I was a child! I was planning to use a recipe I found from the Two Fat Ladies, but might try this one first. Luckily my locals all carry Golden Syrup, and it's a staple in my pantry.
 
guchi December 28, 2015
Not for me, I found the taste overpowering.
 
Laura December 27, 2015
These all sound so yummy! I've loved gingerbread since childhood when I found my Mom's childhood cookbook with a recipe for Fairy Gingerbread... Fell in love! Maybe need to bake a pan of gingerbread, and singe of that lemon sauce shared above which sounds divine. It's such an old fashioned, warm and comforting cake.
 
Dana S. December 22, 2015
Thank you Lindsay-Jean! Merry Christmas!!
 
Dana S. December 21, 2015
I do have the Golden Syrup, but just bought molasses in order to make a gingerbread cake, before I found this recipe. Can I use both? Thanks!
 
Author Comment
Lindsay-Jean H. December 22, 2015
I'd recommend using the golden syrup since you have it!
 
Maryanne W. December 21, 2015
As soon as I saw the title, I thought: It HAS to be her damp gingerbread. Laurie Colwin has been one of my favorite reads for decades and I love to give her books as gifts. She was one of a kind and my list of enchanted writers to look forward to reading was diminished by one when she died.
 
tastysweet December 21, 2015
I Oman on making the Damp Gingerbread for Xmas. Can I make this a day ahead. If so how do I store it. Hope someone answers quickly. Much thanks.
 
Author Comment
Lindsay-Jean H. December 21, 2015
Making it a day ahead of time is fine. I stored it on my countertop in a cake carrier for 5 days. It was definitely at its best earlier in the week, but I still happily polished off the end of it on day 5.
 
Stephanie A. December 21, 2015
I loved Laurie Colwin's column in Gourmet Magazine as well as her books...so sad that she died so young! I am definitely going to try the Damp Gingerbread, but my favorite gingerbread to date is Marion Cunningham's Moosehead Gingerbread, from the Fannie Farmer Baking Book (a classic!). Marion writes "A firm, dense, dark and pungent gingerbread from Maine, very lively with mustard and pepper. Serve with applesauce, vanilla ice cream or whipped cream." This uses regular molasses, powdered ginger, ground cloves and dry mustard and is absolutely delicious! Page 326 of this cookbook.
 
Victoria C. December 24, 2016
I am definitely going to try this one. Marion Cunningham's recipes are always good. I think she has a gingerbread recipe in Lost Recipes too.