Other than the living room (where the pine-y fragrance reigns supreme), the kitchen is arguably the root of all good Christmas smells — things like vanilla sugar cookies, chocolate mint brownies, rum-eggnog cake, and spicy gingerbread. While I’ve been known to work my way through entire populations of gingerbread men each holiday season, I also love a warm slice of the other kind of gingerbread — the dark, moist cake kind flavored with ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and molasses.
So where does gingerbread come from? The word itself originates from “gingerbras,” a word borrowed from Old French meaning “preserved ginger.” It’s believed to have been introduced to Western Europe by 11th-century crusaders returning from the eastern Mediterranean (since ginger itself originates in Asia), and it quickly became a popular treat at festivals and fairs. Allegedly, Medieval ladies often gave their favorite knights a piece of gingerbread for good luck in a tournament, or ate a “gingerbread husband” as a superstitious way of improving their chances of finding the real thing.
The spicy soft gingerbread cake we’re making today starts with butter and sugar, followed by a beaten egg and cup of that classic New England ingredient — molasses. Flour and spices thicken the dough until it’s thick like cookie dough, then hot water thins it out.
The resulting gingerbread cake is light and tender with a delicate crumb and wonderful aroma. It’s the perfect Christmas snack cake, making it an excellent choice for breakfast, teatime, dessert, or…well…anytime, really. Santa might even prefer a slice on Christmas Eve instead of cookies — just don’t forget the glass of milk (or whipped cream!).