March 28, 2011 § Leave a comment
San Francisco has clearly been going through an identity crisis of late. It’s the only explanation for why our dear city has been playing the role of rainy Seattle on March’s stage: weeks of waking to the hammering of sheets of water on the skylight and to the heavens stretching dirty gray ahead. Damp city dwellers shuffle around in a mixture of inappropriate clothing or shiny new impermeables. Hunters are the new keds. Hipsters carry umbrellas. Where will it all end? And, more importantly, when?
In jarring contrast to the cool skies and sodden air, restaurant menus in the city start to show signs of the spring we should be enjoying. The first asparagus, green garlic and spring lamb have muscled winter squash, collard greens and pork belly out of the way. But I brush away the temptation of exciting new ingredients at the market and use the excuse of the weather to bake a cake whose home is really the dark evenings of early November in England: a dark, fudgy gingerbread whose treacly undertones recall the sulphuric traces of spent fireworks and tooth-smashingly hard toffee eaten from a soggy paper bag. I do have a hankering for a piece of cake but more than that I want to infuse our apartment with the aromas of ginger and caramelizing sugar which build up over the long, slow hour that the cake bakes in the oven. It’s a smell so warm that even the dampest corners of our apartment are infused with spice.
I pulled a bunch of cookbooks off the shelves in search of this Sunday gingerbread inspiration and was faced with an array of options. A kamut flour version in Good to the Grain was intriguing enough to tempt and my eye was turned by the chocolate topped gingerbread squares in Baking: From My Home to Yours. I even hovered over a quinoa and crystallized ginger cake in Whole Grains, before slapping myself back to my senses. What I needed was a classic English gingerbread, requiring all the mess of the treacle jar and little fuss otherwise. And when you are talking classic English, you can’t go wrong with Leiths. A self-titled Bible from a classic cooking school of the same name, it’s the kind of book that actually teaches you how to cook, with a scarily comprehensive set of recipes delivered in a tone that is slightly starched but to the point and highly effective. Which kind of describes this gingerbread too: it doesn’t mess around with unusual spice blends and the method is so simple that you almost worry that you must have forgotten something when the cake goes into the oven mere minutes after beginning and leaving minimal washing up. And yet the results cannot be denied: a cake of intense depth of flavour but with a springy levity to the texture that belies its dark and sticky nature. It only gets better as it sits over two or three days, as the fudgy top surface develops and the spice and treacle mix and meld. Indeed, it lasts long enough that the clouds part, the sun appears at long last and we throw open all the windows. I add a generous scoop of vanilla ice-cream to the top of the last hunk and the city is San Francisco all over again.
Black Sticky Gingerbread
Adapted from Leiths Cookery Bible by Prue Leith and Caroline Waldegrave
butter for greasing the pan
225g/8 oz/2 sticks butter
225g/8 oz soft dark sugar
225g/8 oz black treacle*
290ml/1/2 pint full fat milk
340g/12 oz plain/all purpose flour
2 tsp ground ginger
1 tbsp ground cinnamon
1 tbsp freshly grated ginger**
2 tsp baking soda
2 eggs, beaten
*I happened to have some Lyle’s black treacle in the cupboard, which I had picked up at an English shop here some time ago. If you are in the US and can’t easily get black treacle, you should be able to swap molasses (not blackstrap) directly for it. I will try this at some point and add a note as to any difference etc.
**the original recipe didn’t include fresh ginger so feel free to leave this out if you don’t have it to hand, although for me the more ginger the better…
Preheat the oven to 300F/150C. Grease with butter a roasting pan/brownie pan which is roughly 13 x 9 inches and line the base and sides with greaseproof paper.
Melt the butter, sugar and treacle in a medium sized saucepan. Add the milk and set to one side to cool.
Sift the flour with the ginger, cinnamon and baking soda, then stir into the melted mixture along with the beaten eggs and fresh ginger (the mixture needs to be cool enough not to scramble the eggs at this point). Mix until well combined but do not overmix – if the batter is still a bit lumpy but all the flour has gone, that is completely fine. Pour into the prepared tin.
Bake for about 45 minutes to an hour, or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Leave to cool in the pan for about 20-30 minutes and then remove to a baking rack to cool completely. Cut into squares or fingers, to your preference. Wrapped well these will keep for several days, or you can freeze them for 3 months. The cake will be improve with a day of resting.