When I was younger the thing I loved most about the holiday season was the dizzying array of cookies, candies and breakfast cakes that would suddenly appear in the our house. A practiced food sneak, I’d spirit away frosted sugar cookies and waxed paper-wrapped caramels and eat them in the luxurious privacy of my bedroom closet.
My parents were on to my sugar-seeking ways and would do their best to conceal the best of the treats from me so that I didn’t eat them all in a single day (I’ve since learned much about moderation). The one thing they never needed to tuck behind the cereal boxes on top of the refrigerator was the gingerbread. A yearly gift from our next-door neighbor, it was dense, heavy and smelled just slightly of bourbon. It was clearly not a cake for kids.
But as so often happens in life, my tastes have evolved over the years. The cookies I once craved now seem disgustingly sweet and that gingerbread I scorned appeals to me more than ever. That original recipe is long since gone (our neighbor died when I was 13), but I’ve spent the last few years searching out a similarly solid, barely sweetened cake to make and give out during the holiday season.
I’ve tried half a dozen recipes and none delivers the heft and balance better than Ina Garten’s Old-Fashioned Gingerbread. The interior of the cake is sweetened with molasses and studded with rum-soaked raisins and hunks of crystallized ginger. For those who need a hint more sugar, there’s an optional glaze to pour over top once it cools. It’s moist, keeps well and tastes best with coffee. I often bake it in small loaf pans for easy gifting portions. It freezes well, smells delicious while baking and is perfect for The Weekender.
Before you mix your batter, here are a few things you should know:
— The recipe has you melt the butter and molasses together. Keep a close eye on that pot, as it can easily boil over.
— This is a sticky cake, so make sure to line the pan with parchment and butter it well.
— For even more flavor, add the leftover rum from soaking the raisins to the glaze. I’m sure Ina would approve!
Marisa McClellan is a food writer and canning teacher who lives in Center City Philadelphia. Find more of her food (all cooked up in her 80-square-foot kitchen) at her blog, Food in Jars. Her first cookbook, Food in Jars: Preserving in Small Batches Year-Round, is now available.