Happy Accidents Ginger Cake of Many Virtues

  • A perk of living long is that, given the opportunity (and faculties intact), you can have the exhilarating experience of seeing old friends in a fresh light. A standby of fifty years, constant year in, year out, can suddenly turn up as Whoa! That’s YOU? I couldn’t have imagined...
    This just happened to me, and it was delicious. Literally. Because the old friend was a cake– a great ginger cake, my go-to cake for dinner parties and special family occasions for more than fifty years. I thought it great for any number of reasons, but particularly because it was uniquely flavored with fresh ginger root. (In fact, my Fresh Ginger Cake was included in a collection by Food 52 called Genius Recipes*. I was buoyed I wasn’t the only one who knew it was special.)
    Then a bit ago when I went to bake the cake for friends, darned if I couldn’t find my ginger root. (My fridge, like my study, Repository of All Good Things, mirrors my study.) Yes, the next day I found the root but in the meantime, its disappearance was the cause of a Happy Accident.
    At some point over the years I’d thought to add the classic French baking spice, Quatre Epices, a blend of white pepper, cloves, nutmeg, and ginger. In my original recipe** I suggested 2 tablespoons ground ginger could be used in place of the fresh root. That’s what I now had to do. But post quatre épices, I’d neglected to note how much pepper, cloves, and nutmeg to use with the ground dried ginger.
    Out with the calculator.
    Turned out the amount of spices I settled on gave delectable snap and depth.
    The resultant cake was markedly lighter (I guess the root’s fibers contributed to density) and the flavor from dried ginger was purer, more pungent. I was thrilled…my old friend shimmered in an exciting new light.
    I’d make it this way from now on…
    Then last Friday, a second Happy Accident…and added virtue.
    I’d promised to make the cake for a birthday party. The party was twenty minutes away. Now the cake goes together in less than half-an-hour and is delectable served warm–so you can wait to the last minute to bake it. Unfortunately I did just that but as I tucked the pan into the oven, I faced the fact I had no idea how I was going to get the cake warm from the oven across town without jeopardizing its texture.
    I knew a great deal about baking cakes but I’d never faced this situation.
    The prospective journey caused me to turn away from my usual flat square cake pan. I felt something more substantial was needed–a bundt pan. Bundt pans are the ones beautifully swirled with a hole in the middle so the cake is tall and elegant.
    Did I have a bundt pan the right size? I opened my cake pan drawer.*** There it was, with “6-cups” stamped on the bottom. Sigh of relief. But I still didn’t know how I was going to carry the cake to the party.
    The cake went together as always in about 15 minutes. I cherish that. The batter took a little longer to bake in the tube pan, to be expected.
    When the fragrant cake came out of the oven, I was paralyzed: do I unmold it onto a cake rack and carry it in a cardboard box? No. I decided it was safest to leave the cake in its pan, thus sheltered.
    So I set a paper doily on the cake plate, laid the doilyed plate upside down on top of the warm pan (hot pads needed), turned the two over onto serving position. Said a prayer. My old friend looked settled. Calm. I sure wasn’t.
    The pan had been buttered and floured so the cake would easily come out…would it slide down too soon? It did not. Couldn’t believe it.
    At serving time–after about two hours of the cake waiting patiently between pan and plate–I ran a table knife along the edges to free the cake from the metal, set the doileyed plate again on top and turned it over once more. Now the cake did slide gently down onto the plate. When I held my breath, lifting the mold, the pan came clean away! Cake was still warm. So fragrant. So handsome.
    I found myself smiling to myself…could not believe it.
    Normally I would have sprinkled the top with powdered sugar shaken from a sieve–delicate speckles of white against dark brown are the classic finish–but it wasn’t my kitchen and I’d forgotten to bring the sugar and sieve.
    But powdered sugar wasn’t needed…Cameron had made a banner for our Birthday Girl. I’d whipped a pint of heavy cream, added a bit of vanilla and sugar, dolloped cream on the side of every wedge to serve.
    Superb. Light. Spicy. So many virtues.
    Once you’ve gathered ingredients, the batter goes together in about 15 minutes–it’s made in a saucepan on top of the stove with a whisk (no creaming, no sifting). The cake can be served warm less than 1-1/2 hours after you turn on the oven. Served at room temperature, it is lightest within 3 hours of baking.
    And it’s a marvelous keeper. Wrapped airtight and kept at cool room temperature, I just had a piece baked four days ago and it was delectable. Thus it can be baked in advance for An Occasion at one’s convenience. Ginger cake is also lovely sliced thin and spread with soft butter to accompany a cup of tea.
    Perfect for an Easter gathering.
  •                                                                         Happy Accidents Ginger Cake of Many Virtues
    At least 8 Servings
    Ingredients need not be at room temperature.
    ½ cup (1 stick / 4 ounces) unsalted butter; plus about 2 tablespoons softened for the pan
    ½ cup cool water
    ½ cup firmly packed light brown sugar
    ¼ cup light molasses
    ¼ cup dark corn syrup
    1 large egg
    1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour (spooned lightly into the measuring cup); plus about 2 tablespoons for the pan
    2 tablespoons ground ginger (turn from spice jar into a bowl, measure easily from the bowl)
    ½ teaspoon finely ground white pepper
    ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
    ¼ teaspoon grated nutmeg or mace
    1 teaspoon baking soda
    To finish: sifted confectioners’ sugar or Chocolate or Vanilla Frosting or serve with dollops of 1 pint heavy cream whipped and lightly sweetened and vanilla-d.
  • Place a rack in the center of the oven, set temperature to 350 degrees—325 degrees if convection baking.
  • Using a baking pan of 6 to 8 cups capacity (I like an 8-inch square or 6-cup bundt) brush all over with softened butter then dust with flour. Rap pan upside down over the sink to knock out excess flour.
  • To a 2-quart saucepan, slice in the butter in about 8 pieces, add the water and set over medium heat–try not to let the water boil. When the butter has melted, remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the brown sugar, molasses, corn syrup, then break in the egg and whisk till all is blended.
  • In a 1-quart bowl, whisk the flour, ginger, white pepper, cloves, nutmeg, and baking soda together until blended. Add this mixture to the saucepan and whisk until most lumps have disappeared, usually less than a minute.
  • Pour the batter into the cake pan, smooth the top, rap the pan gently on the counter once or twice to knock out any air bubbles.
  • Bake in the center of the oven until it smells baked! and a thin skewer or broom straw comes out clean from the center…the cake has pulled away from the sides…and the top springs back when tapped… 30 – 35 minutes for a square or round pan; about 40 minutes for a bundt pan.
  • Wait about 5 minutes…if planning to serve warm with whipped cream, run a table knife around all edges then turn onto a cake plate; if planning to serve at room temperature, free the cake with a table knife then turn onto a cake cooling rack…when cool, slide onto your cake plate and sprinkle with powdered sugar shaken through a sieve, or frost, or serve unadorned with whipped cream.
  • If planning to take the cake somewhere and serve while still warm, turn the pan upside down onto a cake plate and carry it that way, trying not to jostle…unmold and finish as above.

*I wrote about it in this space, Pleasures and Comforts of Ginger, December 14, 2021.
**Economy Gastronomy (New York: Atheneum, 1963). It was included later in Food 52 Genius Recipes, Ten Speed Press, 2015.
***I’ve looked online, and 6-cup aluminum bundt cake pans are readily available and not costly…an invaluable and longlasting addition to your baking            cupboard.

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