I'm in some weird seasonal denial. Winter is fully upon us and yet I'm surprised every day that it's cold. Maybe it's because we went from balmier temps to freezing so quickly but still, you'd think I would have accepted that it is the end of December and I'd better contain my puffy coat rage. I hate my coat. I don't want to look at it for another minute but too bad, I've got three more months before we're divorcing for good. Or at least until next November when the intervening warmer months soften my mood to the point where when I put on the coat I feel warm and cozy, not imprisoned and resentful.
I think the problem is that I've been really busy and, as always, not living in the moment, so that all of a sudden I looked up and it was dark and freezing and the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree was glowing. It all happened so fast, no? Chanukah felt like it came the day after Thanksgiving (funny how two family focused holidays back-to-back feel like a month long reunion) and by the time I found my menorah it was too late. (Oh, it was in the freezer where I left it last year in an attempt to chill the wax drippings enough to break them off. Oops.) Then school was out, the nieces had time to kill and now it's Christmas and next week is New Year's and where did all the time go?
Then there's my crankiness that not only do I have a cold, red nose but there isn't any end in sight. Unlike those lucky few headed for some tropical climes I'm staying put. Then again, I suppose I should be grateful that I'm not traveling given the general unpleasantness of air travel or what happened to all those poor souls trying to make their way to Europe during a freak blizzard.
Enough kvetching. I'm clothed, housed and there's food in my kitchen so I should just shut up and embrace the season. One thing I've definitely been missing is my favorite holiday smell, ginger. There is nothing like baking with all the hot spices to put you in the spirit and for some reason I never got around to making gingerbread cookies this year. In general I avoid any baking task that involves rolling and cutting if only because there is all that chilling and waiting before you get to eat your treat, it tries my patience. Thankfully my crabby mood was lifted when I saw a recipe for gingerbread cake in this month's Cook's Illustrated.
I need to go on record and say you must add a subscription to your Christmas list right now. What I love about Cook's Illustrated is how insanely anal they are. Each article goes through every minute detail explaining how they arrived at what amounts to the perfect recipe. The chemistry, the testing, the multiple attempts, the failures and the triumphs. Being a part of their journey (but not having to suffer through it) gives the reader the feeling that she is truly being taken care of. You can put your faith into the hands of these buttoned-up Yankees knowing that they will not let you down. And the readers are very fastidious too; each month they send in tips on how to handle every day kitchen frustrations. Here's one from the current issue. "Sheila of Block Island, RI has found a smart way to grease cake pans. Save empty butter wrappers in a zipper-lock bag in the freezer. Whenever a recipe calls for a greased pan, pull out one wrapper and wipe it on the pan's surface. Each wrapper usually has just enough butter clinging to it to grease a pan." Can you imagine 1) coming up with that idea and 2) sharing your genius with a magazine? Brava Sheila. Although I don't see myself remembering to save my butter wrappers I applaud anyone who does.
This cake is everything the magazine said it would be, deeply flavorful and perfectly hot, not a wimpy spice cake but truly a ginger celebration. You can serve it like a casual snack cake, cutting it into squares in the pan, or turn it out onto a pretty plate, maybe dress it up with a light dusting of powdered sugar or, my favorite, serve it with caramel ice cream. I'm not sure when I first had that combo but it was life changing, such a great contrast in textures, temperatures and flavors. Whichever way you go the spicy warmth will thaw the chilliest of Scroogey souls. Enjoy and Happy Holidays!
Heating Up the Holidays Gingerbread Cake
From Cook's Illustrated, January 2011
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3/4 cup Guinness stout
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2/3 cup mild molasses
3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting pan
2 tablespoons ground ginger (if you want to calm down the heat use only 1 tablespoon)
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon finely ground black pepper
2 large eggs
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 tablespoon finely grated fresh ginger
Ice cream or whipped cream for serving
Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour 8-inch square baking pan.
Bring stout to boil in medium saucepan over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and stir in baking soda (mixture will foam vigorously).
When foaming subsides, stir in molasses, brown sugar, and granulated sugar until dissolved; set mixture aside.
Whisk flour, ground ginger, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and pepper together in large bowl; set aside.
Transfer stout mixture to large bowl. Whisk in eggs, oil, and grated ginger until combined.
Whisk wet mixture into flour mixture in thirds, stirring vigorously until completely smooth after each addition.
Transfer batter to prepared pan and gently tap pan against counter 3 or 4 times to dislodge any large air bubbles.
Bake until top of cake is just firm to touch and toothpick inserted into center comes out clean, 35 to 45 minutes.
Cool cake in pan on wire rack, about 11/2 hours. Either turn out cake onto serving platter or cut into squares in pan.
Serve warm or at room temperature with caramel, vanilla or coffee ice cream or whipped cream.
NOTES from Cook's Illustrated: Avoid opening the oven door until the minimum baking time has elapsed. If your cake pan has thin walls, you might want to wrap it with premade cake strips or make your own from cheesecloth and foil. This extra insulation will help ensure that the edges of the cake don't overbake.
Yield: 8-10 servings