Shuna’s Famous Gingerbread

| January 9, 2006 | 30 Comments
  • 30 Comments

About a month ago I came home to this intriguing note:

“OK Eggbeater, your food blog kept me interested for hours. But the recipe that the world REALLY needs is for your gingerbread…so when can I look forward to that? sd”

I laughed out loud. SD is Stephen Durfee, pastry chef from my time at The French Laundry. A wild and wacky fellow with energetic ideas and a personality riding just this side of mayhem. Suffice to say we were at times near opposite ends of the wall containing our illustrious department. I learned to take chances working for Stephen. He taught me to verbally “grade” my work so that we could both track my improvement. And he pushed the envelope of “shoulds,” supporting and nurturing in me my own “what ifs” and “why nots.” We created desserts with bacon, dressed fruit and nuts with virgin oils and worked dark to dark sometimes months in a row without a day off.

The day Stephen learned he had been nominated for the James Beard award for best pastry chef he called to thank me. I was puzzled. “For what?” I inquired. “For supporting me. I didn’t win this nomination on my own,” he explained generously.

Stephen was the last pastry chef I worked for. It was his nest I was pushed out of, propelled just down the road to Bouchon. Stephen was who I leaned against when I couldn’t figure out how to make something work. He gently and almost inperceptibly transitioned out of being my boss and singular mentor to becoming a fan of my desserts, asking me for my recipes. Here in lies one of the differences between a chef who can share and a chef who needs to maintain her/his egotistical, maniacal power over their cooks. For are we not comprised of where we came from, the gifts others give us and that which we pass on? We keep what we have by giving it away.

My professional cooking started out as foreplay; sensual descriptive romantic words tempted, lured and seduced me into hot searing kitchens. Laurie Colwin held me rapt at attention, first with her novels, later with real life stories of cooking and entertaining in her first Greenwich Village apartment, a space so tiny it had neither dining room nor kitchen! Down to earth and hysterically funny, Colwin spoiled me with extremely well-written prose about an ecclectic and eccentric mix of edible subjects. In the foreward of her first book she reminds us we are never alone whilst cooking. In citing which authors kept her company at her own stoves, I was cordially introduced to Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book, which remains, to this day, my favorite book, my go-to location for inspiring, elegant fruit ideas and beautiful anecdotes.

Edward Behr let me in on his secret: be not afraid of obsessively and passionately uncovering every detail about one ingredient. Research apples, cream or eggs to their very point of origin and then live in the library to learn more. Ronni Lundy wrapped me in her warm Southern arms, shared stories from old-timey hollers, presented family recipes and photographs, beguiling my modern mind with comforting foods. Biscuits so simple I learned early on that a recipe is nothing without learned hands. Hands timid and reverant enough to honor simple is not simplistic.

Yes, baking is about paying close attention. But it’s also about taking chances. Making the pie dough you fear. Sharing tiny tasty whimsical cookies. Becoming crazy with happiness and delight at the sight of a souffle rising.

In a repetoire of hundreds of recipes I’ve made, tweaked, learned, and taught, I am very very proud of a small handful. Ones I brought from belly crawl to walk. Recipes which crept into dreams quietly whispering, or came wafting through dusty old library stacks, never settling, souls in limbo, teasingly, like the one you can never catch during hide & seek. Taste memories.

My gingerbread is one of these such recipes. In both Home Cooking and More Home Cooking, Laurie Colwin’s two books of compiled Gourmet Magazine essays, Ms. Colwin dedicates a chapter each to gingerbread. A sweet considered old world, the gingerbread, she sadly notes, has gone out of fashion.

“…gingerbread made from scratch takes very little time and gives back tenfold what you put into it. Baking gingerbread perfumes a house as nothing else. It is good eaten warm or cool, iced or plain. It improves with age, should you be lucky or restrained enough to keep any around.” Laurie Colwin, Home Cooking.

Every word of her two odes to gingerbread is true. Make the following recipe if you don’t believe me. Shuna’s Famous Gingerbread can be made in any baking vessel, metal or ceramic. It sits proudly on the fence between sweet and savoury. In one mood I eat it toasted with runny cheese, another with chocolate ice cream. It can be haughty beside creme fraiche, will bed a poached pear or get in the ring confidently with a perfectly ripe August Stilton. A strong restaurant plated dessert component, this gingerbread keeps and strengthens in character over the course of a week. And you don’t need a Kitchen-Aid!

I will reiterate that recipes are guides. Over many years of making gingerbread from various sources I took all my favorite traits and their corresponding results, combining them into one recipe. Please don’t let the amount of ingredients scare you. Although it’s a tall order, many substitutions can be made, and in the end it can just be an excuse to make too much. Friends and co-workers of mine rarely complain that, yet again, I have made more than what my own small household can decently consume.

SHUNA’S FAMOUS GINGERBREAD

18 ounces All Purpose Flour
6 ounces Sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons Kosher Salt
1 Tablespoon Baking Soda
3 Tablespoons + Ground Ginger
1/2 teaspoon Ground Cloves
1 1/2 teaspoon Ground Cinnamon
1 Tablespoon Ground Cardamon
1 teaspoon + Freshly Ground Black Pepper
1 teaspoon *optional: Ground Coriander*

8 ounces Unsalted Butter
3 1/2 ounces Blackstrap Molasses
6 ounces Simple Syrup **recipe in instructions** you may substitute Lyle’s golden syrup or light corn syrup

3 each Large Egg Yolks
2 each Large Eggs
8 ounces buttermilk you may substitute sour cream or use a mixture of them both to create the eight ounces

Suggestions: Use the freshest, organic if possible, ground spices. Rainbow Grocery is a fantastic source for buying small amounts in bulk. Keep spices away from light and heat in your kitchen and try to use them up within 6 months of purchase date.

**To make simple syrup place equal parts sugar and cold water in saucepan and bring to a boil until mixture is clear. For a thicker syrup boil for at least 10 minutes or increase the amount of sugar. For this recipe 1/2 cup sugar to 1/2 cup water will be sufficient.**

1. Preheat oven to 350F
2. Butter desired baking vessels. {Sometimes I coat with raw or white sugar inside as you would flour for a cake.}
3. Sift all dry ingredients except salt and pepper into a large bowl
4. Whisk in salt and pepper until mixture is uniform and create a “well” in center
5. In a medium non-reactive saucepan bring butter, molasses and simple syrup to a boil slowly {this mixture is feisty and will boil over if the heat is on too high or your saucepan is crowding it}
6. In another bowl whisk together egg yolks, eggs and dairy
7. When mixture on stove comes to a boil, shut off heat and let rest for a moment
8. Pour this hot mixture all at once into the center of your bowl of dry ingredients
9. Using a whisk, mix dry ingredients into liquid, from center out, carefully
10. When batter begins to seize, pour in second bowl of wet ingredients
11. Whisk batter until smooth and uniform. Batter is loose
12. Pour batter a little over halfway into buttered baking tins
13. I set my first timer for about 15 minutes, {unless you are making muffin-size or smaller}, so that I can turn the pan around for a more even bake
14. Gingerbread is done when sides pull away from the pan, middle bounces back to the touch and/or a cake-tester inserted in the center comes out clean
{From this recipe I made one cake pan, one loaf, and it took about 35 minutes}
15. Cool at least until warm before slicing.

And now for the fantastic final detail/hint. You may turn this recipe into a “mix”! Assemble one recipe of just the dry ingredients. Weigh mixture and jot it down. You can keep mix in the cupboard for a rainy day and bake any fraction of it which suits you. This gingerbread is spicy and warming. A perfect, not-too-sweet confection for the coldest month of the year. Happy 2006!

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Category: baking and bakeries, Bay Area Bites Food + Drink, holidays and traditions

About the Author ()

Shuna fish Lydon was whisked and baked in San Francisco but served and eaten in New York City. She's had a 16 year tumultuous love affair with professional cooking and has BFA in photography from CCAC. Working with and for some of the best chefs in NYC and California, Shuna's resume reads like the who's who of cooking today. She identifies as a fruit-inspired pastry chef and calls the many local farmers' markets her muse. Currently "at large," Shuna spends her time teaching baking and knife skills classes, consulting at local restaurants and writing for a number of outlets about deliciousness.
  • Luisa

    Fantastic! I loved the post (because I adore Laurie Colwin’s books and never tire of rereading them) and especially like the “mix” idea for gingerbread gifts. Thanks, Shuna!

  • lindy

    I too adore Laurie Colwin’s books.
    I make gingerbread often,it’s a big favorite of mine- but have never settled on a personal favorite recipe for cake type gingerbread. I will be trying this very soon-it sounds excellent.

  • Kudzu

    Shuna –
    I was lucky enough to have to walk past my grandparents’ house on my way home from school. In the fall and winter I could guarantee that at least once a week I could stop by and find a square of warm gingerbread waiting for me on the back of the woodstove (yes). I can’t wait to try your recipe and when I do I will think of Laurie and Ronni (two of my favorite writers) and you (another one). Thank you!

  • Tana

    I’m so glad to see the inclusion of cardamom in there. I’ve been using it in my gingerbread Christmas cookies for years. It really does add a wonderful perfume and flavor.

  • Jennifer Maiser

    Such a good idea to make this as a mix — will be trying it soon. Do you use regular white sugar in this?

  • Anonymous

    Looks fabulous, I can’t wait to try it. Question: Does this make 1 loaf pan AND one cake pan, or one or the other? Thanks

  • Jeanne

    Shuna my sister in baking, your efforts and insights in this post have given to me tenfold. Laurie Colwin, experimentation, recipes as guides (I do say “it’s a departure point”), Behr. So may layers…can’t wait to try this epic loaf!

  • shuna fish lydon

    Thank you everyone! And you’re welcome.

    I made one loaf and one cake pan with this recipe. Both, not either. Crumb changes depending on how heat travels through differently shaped vessels, as well as what the vessel is made of.

    My sugar here is white sugar although try substituting other granulated sugars as I’m sure the results can only change deliciously.

    And hey y’all— let me know if you make this recipe, even/especially if you make changes! It would be so fabulous to exchange ideas this way.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Shuna,
    I’m writing from Hobart, Tasmania – this is my first visit to your blog, and you seem to me to be a very special and talented person. You have a real passion for your art, and a fabulous way with words. I see why you have been nominated in the 2005 Food Blog awards.
    My questions for you are: (1) I often see references to “all-purpose flour” in American recipes; this is not something you find on Australian supermarket shelves – is it simply plain flour?
    (2) Is Blackstrap Molasses merely a product name – in other words, can any old kind of molasses be used?

    Many kind regards from a new fan in the Antipodes,

    Em Johnson

  • shuna fish lydon

    Hello Em Johnson. Welcome and thank you so very much for your flattering words.

    You’re lucky because I began baking in Egland and I know a little bit about this terminology.

    Plain flour is indeed our “all purpose.” It basically means the protein content floats around 10% Treacle would be your version of our molasses and Lyle’s Golden Syrup is the best ever substite for our plain old simple syrup.

    Thank you for visiting and leaving a comment to let us all know from whence you write. Call me naive but the internet continues to amaze me with its broad-reaching voice and possibity for exchange!

    I think I can speak for us all here at BAB when I say we hope you will continue to visit and comment.

    Please fell free to share what your recipe made in Tasmania turns out like compared to my American ingredient version.

  • Randi

    I absolutly love Laurie Colwin, she’s timeless. I also love gingerbread so I’m definatly making this.

  • Molly

    Shuna, thank you for a truly lovely and thought-provoking post. And you’d better believe I’ll be trying that gingerbread…

  • Lynn D.

    What a fabulous post. I must share with you my grandmother’s recipe for gingerbread exactly as she wrote it down for me almost 40 years ago when I went to college. Of course I filled in the gaps in her recipe because I had watched her make it and made in under her watch many times.

    “Break 1 egg in cup, fill cup with molasses, add 1 tsp ginger and 1 tsp cinnamon. Put 1/2 cup butter in a cup and fill cup with hot water and 1 level tsp soda. Put two mixtures together and add 1 and 1-half cups sifted flour. Bake in pan or makes 1 dozen regular sized muffins.”

    This recipe is actually delicious and so easy (necessary for a young widow (the l918 influenza) who mowed her own lawn and washed her clothes in a wringer washer and hung them out to dry). In college I lived in a coop cooking dorm and served it with a warm sauce of equal parts frozen orange juice concentrate & honey as well as redi-whip! Sorry about that last bit, but redi-whip was actually a favorite of my gramma’s.

  • Anonymous

    Shuna,

    Thanks for your advice – that’s cleared it up for me! Although it’s Summer down here right now, it hasn’t yet got too hot to bake (in Hobart, at any rate – it was 43 degrees centigrade in Sydney over New Years!), so I think I’ll be baking this on the weekend!
    Thanks for your kind encouragement, I’ll stay in touch.
    Regards,
    Em Johnson

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Shuna,I’ve been waiting for this one for so long! I’ll make it tomorrow, I promise. And, congratulations for all your great work! sd

  • McAuliflower

    I shouldn’t even mention the divine possiility of using this to make french toast… naw, i shouldn’t mention that.

  • Lu

    I see wide recognition of your wonderful array of talents tres vite!! Muah!!

  • Annie

    Your post is nearly a year old but I just came across it last week and realized that I’d never even had real gingerbread, much less made any. I only wish Lynn D. had included the gap fill-ins to her grandmother’s vintage recipe. This is my project for this weekend – after the last-minute wrapping, the pomegranate molasses, lavender honey and chocolate fudge. Don’t you just love this season? :)

  • Nina

    After over a year of having this recipe on my mind (and blackstrap molasses on my grocery lists), I finally made it today… And it’s fantastic! My boyfriend and I love the depth of the spice. He said that it’s like a thousand gingerbread cookies.

    I made it pretty much as is – halved the recipe, used Lyle’s golden syrup and the ground coriander, and baked it in an 8″ square pan, coated with the sugar. It looked gorgeous coming out of the oven — smooth and slightly puffed.

    The ginger cake that I’ve made the most in the past uses chopped fresh ginger… For kicks, maybe I’ll try adjusting the recipe for that next time.

  • shuna fish lydon

    Nina!

    So glad you finally made it indeed!

    “My boyfriend and I love the depth of the spice. He said that it’s like a thousand gingerbread cookies.” I love these sentences. They are exactly the reason for all the spices. Even though it seems excessive, and a lot more work, I think tasting shows why it’s worth it.

  • Dave

    Great recipe! I made it at the restaurant tonight with warm creme fraiche sauce and pear sorbet to rave reviews. Thanks Shuna!

  • Anthea

    What a wonderful sounding recipe. I am writing from Osaka, Japan and rely on the internet for just about all Western recipes I need. While I did transcribe various recipes for gingerbread and parkin (is that the typical British term for it?) while visiting Sydney back home in Oz, I left them all behind so I am so glad to have come across yours. The use of coriander is an intriguing twist I will certainly incorporate.

    I love the idea of making it as a mix. I have a tiny oven of truly Japanese minimalist dimensions, and there’s no way I could bake all of this at once.

    ONE QUESTION: If I were to make up the dry mix and wanted to use only 1/2 or 1/3 of it, how would I divide up the 3 egg yolks and 2 eggs part?

    Thank you for taking the time to answer questions and generously share your recipes.

  • shuna fish lydon

    Anthea,

    This is an excellent question!

    The best way to divide eggs and yolks for a recipe is to whisk together the needed eggs and then divide that mixture into fractions.

    With the leftover eggs you have a nutritious snack that will keep you from eating all the batter before it goes in the oven!

  • Gilda

    Looking to replace all of the all purpose flour in your recipe with a healthier 100% whole wheat flour (King Arthur Brand). Can this be done? How would you incorporate a 100% whole grain into your gingerbread recipe? Any suggestions?

  • http://eggbeater.typepad.com/ shuna fish lydon

    Hello Gilda,

    It seems to me that so long as the whole wheat flour you’re using is not primarily a bread or a pastry flour (maybe a mixture of 50/50 both?), you should be fine. You could also use spelt flour, that might be nice.

    Remember this: the batter should be so much a liquid that it pours. If the whole meal flour you use pulls in more moisture and your batter is thick– add a little more moisture and all should be fine.

    This recipe is not particular. I created it from a dozen recipes whose traits I loved, please do not hesitate to experiment further and make it your own!

  • Natalie

    I’m thinking of baking this in mini loaf pans and giving away as gifts this Christmas. Can I dress it up with lemon icing or some other kind of icing/topping? Or it that going to be an overkill? I’m looking for some kind of visual effect to put on top of the loaves. Also, how about adding some frozen cranberries? Again, overkill? I hate to play around with a recipe that already sounds perfect :)

    Thanks for any advice!

  • http://lesbokitchen.wordpress.com lesbo-kitchen

    hi shuna,

    I do have a technical question. but first, I have to say how stricken I am by this particular piece of writing. what a privilege it is to be ‘in conversation’ with a teacher of such great talent.

    your writing about your process with food is so…rich. and you are so generous with us, sharing this recipe. I have the dries mixed up right now. 1 tablespoon cardamom = wow.

    I am as shocked as I am thrilled to say this: I had never heard of laurie colwin until know. can hardly wait to start reading.

    thanks. thanks. thanks.

    so. what is the purpose of the invert sugar in this recipe? why simple syrup or corn syrup or golden syrup instead of the plain sugar + hot water that you’ll find in lots of gingerbread recipes?

  • http://eggbeater.typepad.com/ Shuna Fish Lydon

    Hello Fabulous Lesbo-Kitchen,

    This is a fantastic question! I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to respond.

    Sugar does more than just make things sweet in baking. Sugar is a tenderizer and attracts moisture; it helps keep baked good moist. Sugars that are liquid ‘in their natural state,’ are called invert sugars. Obvious examples of invert sugars are honey, molasses, cane syrup like sorghum. And we can ‘make’ invert sugars by taking crystallized sugar, adding it to water, and boiling until sugar dissolves. Hence simple syrup.

    The higher the viscosity (= thickness) of an invert sugar, the better it does at its invert sugar job. For example glucose is more serious than golden syrup or agave.

    When cakes employ invert sugars the baker wants the baked good to have a moist, tender crumb. The baker hopes said baked good will stay moist longer than if she uses crystallized sugar. (Crystallized sugar is just liquid sugar dehydrated to various molecule shapes & sizes.)

    But not all cake batters can handle invert sugars. Honey is the best example because one can never kill the enzymes in honey and those enzymes work to break down delicate emulsions.

    Is this too scientific? Basically gingerbread is a baked good that is, can be, and historically been aged. One wants to make gingerbread and eat it a few days later. All those spices need to calm down and marry, or at least hold hands. Liquid sugars get along with this process better than dry ones.

    I created this recipe by making dozens of British recipes and pulling out all the characteristics I loved and combining them all to create one.

    I hope you like it, play with it, and make it yours. I have never met a gingerbread that didn’t enter the heart of its baker.

  • http://lesbokitchen.wordpress.com lesbo-kitchen

    Thanks, Shuna, that makes a lot of sense. It makes me wonder about some other things, though.

    You said that the more viscous the invert sugar, the better it does its job of attracting and retaining moisture in the bread/cake.

    The instructions in your recipe direct us to make simple syrup of equal parts water and sugar, but allow for the creation of a thicker syrup by boiling for 10 minutes, or by increasing the ratio of sugar to water. Obviously, either will create a more viscous syrup, and a more intensely sweet one, too.

    The gingerbread recipe calls for 6 oz of simple syrup, which could presumably be of the thinner, less-sweet variety, or the thicker, more-sweet kind. With the latter (which is more sugar and less water), I would have a sweeter, moister bread, than with the former.

    (And I expect that the other substitute invert sugars, like corn and golden syrups, have various viscosities and sweetnesses, as well.)

    I can’t quite wrap my mind around my question, but it’s something along these lines:

    At what point is a syrup too viscous? (is this the point at which it can dissolve no more sugar and therefore begins to – what? – crystallize?

    If I use the most viscous possible syrup in the gingerbread, I will be 1) making it a lot sweeter and 2) reducing the amount of water in the recipe.

    If I wanted the gingerbread to be less sweet than it turned out in the above scenario, would it be better to use a smaller quantity of the most viscous simple syrup, or would it be better to make my syrup less viscous?

    I had a similar question when making your caramel cake. The instructions for making caramel begin with exact quantities of water and sugar, but later direct you to reduce it somewhat, much like the above directions for simple syrup. Since I didn’t really know how to judge whether I had reduced it enough, I wondered about the consequences (for the cake) of using over- or under-reduced caramel.

    And finally, what’s the downside of using an invert sugar in a baked good? Even though we universally want them to be moist and tender, most cakes don’t use invert sugars – your yellow cake, for example. Why not? What desirable quality do you sacrifice by using simple syrup?

    I could ask about twenty more questions on this topic (like, can I always use simple syrup in place of corn syrup with equally good effect?), but I’ll hush up and hope you have the inclination to take on any one of those I’ve already asked!

    jami

  • Kristine-CA

    Question: are all ingredients by to be weighed, or just dry ingredients. Molasses, buttermilk and simple syrup are liquid ounces? Thanks! Kristine