Spirit of Fall Is in Gingerbread

Yesterday morning, my pal Nancy called me from Chicago with some startling news: It was snowing and 21 degrees, making it the earliest measurable snowfall on record for Chicago.

Gingerbread topped with homemade, moron-proof applesauce. (Kim O'Donnel)

The sultry Indian summer weather smiling down on Washington was paradise in comparison, and then, as if I spoke too soon while basking in the sun like a kitty, the skies went gray, the wind got fierce and the temperature dropped about 25 degrees in a matter of hours.

Although sunny, this Friday the 13th is downright crisp, a day of classic autumnal proportions. In fact, I have a bit of déjà vu; it was day like today that I invited my friends for a hayride to celebrate my 13th birthday and it was a day like today that my father died 24 years ago. Beautiful, melancholic, set to the sound of crunching leaves.

And so in keeping with the classic autumn theme, seasonal treats are an absolute must. Off the top of my head, I'm thinking gingerbread, of the square pan variety, with a history as long as my arm (there's a gingerbread reference in Shakespeare's "Love's Labour Lost," Act V, Scene I). The warming nature of cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg, the heady viscosity of molasses -- it all says autumn to me.

There are tons of recipes out there for gingerbread cakes; an entire chapter is devoted to the spiced stuff in Beth Hensperger's "The Best Quick Breads," from which the below recipe has been tested.
I'm curious about a chocolate gingerbread from Nigella Lawson, as well as the how-to for a black sticky gingerbread, found on food blog, 101cookbooks, with honey providing the stickiness.

Details below are for a Colonial style gingerbread, aka 'gyngerbredde." Instead of a dollop of whipped cream, I prefer a more wholesome accompaniment, such as homemade applesauce, which you can whip up while the gingerbread is in the oven. Another au naturel garnish is a ripe pear, sliced or even some apple butter for spreading.

Applesauce, by the way, is so easy it's practically an auto-cook experience. Moron-proof, actually.

Here's how: Peel and core apples (if you have a food mill, don't worry about this part) and cut into quarters. Place apples in a medium saucepan and add just enough water to cover. Cook over low-medium heat and allow to cook until desired softness. A cinnamon stick is nice, but not necessary. Estimate one apple per person. The entire process will take about 20 minutes. I use a potato masher at the end to smooth out some chunks. Sugar is not necessary! Eat right away or store in the fridge in an airtight container.

Share your favorite gingerbread ideas, toppings or sappy, autumnal childhood stories below.

Classic Gingerbread
From "The Best Quick Breads" by Beth Hensperger

1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon ground mace (Note: I had none in the house, so I used grated nutmeg instead)
¼ teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter
½ cup dark brown sugar
½ cup unsulphured molasses
1 egg
2/3 cup water

Preheat oven to 350 degrees (325 degrees if you are using Pyrex or dark-cast metal pan). Grease an 8-inch square, round or springform pan or use an oil spray.

In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, baking soda, spices and salt. Set aside.

In a large bowl with an electric mixer, cream butter and brown sugar until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add molasses and slowly blend. Add egg and beat for 30 seconds.

Bring water to a full boil - 212 degrees. Add flour mixture in three portions, alternating with the boiling water and mix for 30 seconds on medium speed. Beat gently just until the ingredients are evenly corporated, only about 1 minute. Do not overmix. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan.

Bake in the center of the oven until the top springs back when touched and a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean, about 35-40 minutes. Let cake cool in the pan for 20 minutes. Run a knife around the edge to loosen the cake, turn it out onto the rack, and place it right side up to finish cooling.

By Kim ODonnel |  October 13, 2006; 11:21 AM ET Autumn Classics , Desserts , Fall Produce
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Another nice sauce for gingerbread is lemon curd (available jarred in most grocery stores, I think) or a less viscous lemon sauce - basically a not-very-thick cornstarch custard. My grandmother used to make that for me when I was a little girl...

Posted by: Sass | October 13, 2006 1:02 PM

An old camping trick is good when done in a nice, civilized kitchen also. Buy cheap
(watery) applesauce and drop heaping spoonsful of a thick gingerbread batter in it as it simmers in a roomy pot. Cover and you'll have gingerbread dumplings in
a short amount of time. The gingerbread soaks up the applesauce juices leaving a nice thick topping for serving.

Posted by: martha_hb@yahoo.com | October 13, 2006 1:30 PM

Melt some butter in your gingerbread baking pan, add in apple slices; sprinkle with a little brown sugar and cinnamon if you like, then spread the gingerbread batter on top for a sort of upside down apple gingerbread.

Posted by: Gran | October 13, 2006 4:10 PM

A heart-warming (to me) favorite New England combo is gingerbread with wild blueberries. A blueberry sauce or syrup on top would be great, but I love fresh/frozen berries added right into the cake. So very good.

Posted by: Frances | October 13, 2006 4:47 PM

I've used pear halves cut side down in the bottom of the pan for an upside-down pear gingerbread. Another good match.

Posted by: Karen | October 13, 2006 7:20 PM

I second the notion of a gingerbread with wild blueberries. I always request it for Christmas dinner dessert at my parents' house.

Posted by: Kathryn | October 16, 2006 11:33 AM

While I love gingerbread, I would reaally love a great recipe for spice cake that's not too complicated.

Posted by: Leah | October 16, 2006 3:42 PM

Make a gingerbread trifle with layered cubes of gingerbread spread with blueberry jam, lemon pudding, fresh blueberries and whipped cream. It's one of our Chrismas desserts.

Posted by: Sharon | October 17, 2006 4:14 PM

This recipe is very easy to vegan-ify. Use soy margarine and replace the egg with half of a banana, mashed. I have made it three times since this was posted!

Posted by: Amy | November 1, 2006 3:46 PM

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