Every culture has dishes prepared for specific holidays, but over time many recipes that our ancestors prepared on a regular basis have been needlessly consigned to special occasions. How often do you roast a turkey or make a fruitcake? What’s particularly sad as well as paradoxical about this occasional consignment is that many dishes we prepare only for the holidays are those that bring us the most comfort, that make us feel most at home and closest to the heart of our lives and those we love.
Gingerbread is an extreme example of this culinary exile, particularly because when gingerbread is prepared even for the holidays it’s most often make into cookies or constructed into houses, both bizarre cases of misguided nostalgia, since people rarely remember that a gingerbread house was where a cannibalistic witch lured the outcast Hansel and Gretel. Unlike most recipes, gingerbread has a very specific culinary history, having been brought to Europe by an Armenian monk—Europe was swarming with monks back then—first to France (of course) and from there the bread spread throughout the western hemisphere (the French consider this a natural progression). Ginger has always been thought of as an aid to digestion, and Beard maintains that in this country gingerbread was eaten on a regular basis much like savory bread up until the first decades of the 20th century, when it became a food for children or the holiday table, specifically for the Christmas table as anthropomorphic cookies.
Let’s bring gingerbread back into our homes on a regular basis if for no other reason than that it is a most aromatic dish with an infusion of cinnamon, clove, allspice and ginger in an exotic melange rising above the mellow scents of vanilla, molasses and brown sugar. This is another recipe you should have in your repertoire for any day of the year, any time of the day, particularly for us Southerners, since we have access to the finest molasses in the world, namely sorghum molasses, the nectar of any god. This recipe is not complicated at all and by far surpasses those awful mixes you’ll find that the supermarket that have doubtless been on the shelf nearby the birthday candles for months.
First, this is a buttermilk recipe, so instead of baking powder, bicarbonate of soda provides the leavening; second, know that you need to use a strong blackstrap molasses, not Karo Dark, and certainly not honey; finally, use more ginger than you might feel comfortable about. You’re going to find a lot of recipes that employ a teaspoon of ground ginger with equal amounts of cinnamon, cloves and allspice, but this is gingerbread, not spice bread. The ginger needs to shine in the taste of the bread itself. Cream a stick of softened unsalted butter with a half cup of light brown sugar, beat until fluffy and mix well with two eggs and a half cup of sorghum molasses. Mix one and a half cups of flour with a half teaspoon of baking soda, a heaping tablespoon of ground ginger, a teaspoon of cinnamon and a quarter teaspoon each of ground cloves and allspice. Add two teaspoons pure vanilla extract and a half cup buttermilk. Pour batter into a buttered loaf pan and bake at 350 for about an hour. If you have the willpower, cool before slicing.