Sugar, Spice, All Things Nice: Gingerbread

I thought this would be a great way to start December….the flavours of Christmas.

I adore gingerbread. It promises so little in its uninspired fifty shades of plain brown but always delivers hugely on taste. I’m convinced that the ancient maxim which I’ve pinched for the title was about gingerbread, not what girls are made from.

Every country has its own take on this warming treat. Ginger was considered a digestive aid once upon a time so it was popular to be made into baked goods. From the lebkuchen and pfeffernusse of German Christmases, to the Polish pierniczki, Dutch ontbijtkoek, French pain d’epices to our own gingerbread men and parkin, spiced bakes have been a tradition in Europe at least, for centuries. I won’t give a potted history of gingerbread but you get the idea.

I went through a phase a couple of months back whereby I made a point of trying to cook every gingerbread recipe in every cookbook I own (and still missed out two after forgetting about them – Nigella’s Christmas recipe and her Guinness one, which I have made before). Even though the recipes were broadly similar in their methods, the differences in taste and ingredients were startling – some were based on golden syrup, others treacle…some both…some added fruit (candied citron peel was in one, sultanas in another, whilst yet another called for marmalade). Some turned out dry and tasteless, whilst others turned out dark, sticky and headily aromatic.

Some gingerbreads are like biscuits, whilst others take the form of a cake. I tend to prefer the cakey ones as I now associate the biscuit one being used solely as a building material and style over substance (blame Bake Off and the influx of gingerbread house ‘kits’ on the shelves for that one).

This is my own recipe for gingerbread, which in turn was spun off both from my Yorkshire Parkin, and from those within my cookbook collection which I tested on willing work colleagues. The thumbs up votes mostly went to the gingerbreads using black treacle and didn’t hold back on the spice. My goal was to create a home-made spin on the one store-bought cake I have no qualms about purchasing – McVities Jamaica Ginger Cake. It’s everything I like about gingerbread – sticky, tar-hued, and gloriously warming.

Although I’ve yet to make one with honey as the syrup base as they do on the continent, I’m sure I will in time.

Be warned, this is not subtle. This one packs heat. German bakes call for the fruity fire of black pepper, so I added some of Saxa’s finest ‘school pepper’ (ie ready-ground stuff. Like I’ve said previously, snobbishness plays no part in my cooking) in addition to three, yes, three, teaspoons of ginger. For aromatic background muzak, I added a bit of that British wintry classic, mixed spice (though technically, once more, it was Waitrose’s ‘signature spice’ but that’s by-the-by).

I can’t get enough of the liquorice intensity of black treacle but am also fond of the teeth-achingly flapjack sweetness of golden syrup so I settled on equal measures of each.

Finally, you’ll note the type of flour used – I liked the chewiness oatmeal lends to parkin, and, because I was desperate to use up an ageing bag of it, I’ve chosen self-raising wholemeal flour which I feel works beautifully without the panic of possible bicarb-induced soapiness and also it adds more texture than regular white flour without, I think, making it heavy.

You can eat this the day you make it, but honestly, if you can make it in advance, do. It, like many of its ilk, simply get even better with age, and it becomes squidgier and mellower but still like a wee hot toddy in cake form.  Dark brown sugar is essential in my opinion, muscovado even better as there’s something about the molasses in these that makes them taste spicy anyway. The two-dimensional flat sweetness of the white stuff just won’t cut it here.



5oz margarine

5oz dark brown soft sugar

2.5 oz black treacle or molasses

2.5oz golden syrup

6oz wholemeal self-raising flour

1 large egg, beaten

3tsp ground ginger

1tsp mixed spice

1/2 tsp ground black pepper

  1. Preheat oven to 150 degrees C. Grease an 8×8 brownie pan or any medium-sized deepish square baking tin of your choice and line with a sheet of baking parchment hanging over the sides for easy lifting out.
  2. Place flour and spices into a bowl and whisk briskly to combine evenly. I loathe un-necessary sifting but feel free to do so if you want. Set aside.
  3. Heat margarine, sugar, treacle and golden syrup gently in a pan until they melt and become one gloriously tar-like mass. Remove from heat and mix into dry ingredients. Add the beaten egg. Be careful to combine well but do not over-mix.
  4. Pour this aromatic batter into the tin and bake for 35-45 minutes (ovens vary) until risen and a tester comes out clean. Allow to cool completely in the tin on a wire rack.
  5. When cooled, cut into squares or, much preferably, wrap in cling film and stash in a cool, dry place for a few days-1 week and allow to get gloriously soft and squadgy before cutting.




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