Pleasures and Comforts of Ginger

Most who know me know my fresh ginger cake. Easily made and versatile—in the oven in a trice, finished simply with powdered sugar or Laurie Colwin’s slathering of chocolate icing–ginger cake is, I think, one of the world’s great confections. Complex and rich, sweet but not cloying, it’s my go-to cake for celebrations from birthdays to bar mitzvahs to Christmases. Children love it even though it’s not chocolate. Ginger cake—gingerbread, whatever it’s texture or name—has given pleasure since (or so the story goes) an Armenian monk brought it to Europe in the tenth century…

Esthetically the root, playful expression of nature’s art, never ceases to delight. Often I prop what’s called a hand of ginger on my kitchen workspace to study, enjoy. Gastronomically, a few shreds of the fibrous rhizome will lift an Asian soup or stir-fry from tasty to exquisite.

Then recently I discovered an aspect of ginger’s versatility that was a true gift: ginger beer. Wickie says ginger beer was first brewed in Yorkshire in the mid-eighteenth century. Now it’s made all over the world. Essentially fresh ginger, yeast, and water, the brew becomes sparkling, tickles the nose, lifts the spirits. When you need a pick-me-up, a get-me-out-of-this nowheresville, non-alcoholic ginger beer does the trick.

Proof: recently we had a houseguest for a week, a dear friend struggling with alcoholism. She’s marvelous company but a wicked drunk. We bravely asked her please not to drink during her stay (but didn’t believe this would or could happen). Still optimistically I stocked the fridge with umpteen forms of energizing soft drinks from kombucha to Gatorade to Red Bull to ginger beer. The latter came in bottles, contained sugar, and in cans, sugar free. All kombuchas finished, our friend reached for a bottle of ginger beer, frowning.

Now the web will tell you that ginger root is cleansing, a digestive, an anti-inflammatory. All I can tell you is that for one week our friend embraced the ginger beer, didn’t touch a drop of liquor. I must report that I, too, at the end of the day when my glass of wine was drained and I wanted another slosh, poured ginger beer into my glass and it was a super boost…better than wine. Ginger beer now has its place in our fridge.

I write this away from home. We exchanged houses with a friend in Kauai. Went shopping for ginger beer this morning and was surprised to find handsome bottles from Australia. Peppery and bracing, I love it.

Our Kauai host is not a cook, I knew his cupboard would be thin on what I regard as essentials. I planned to give you my ginger cake recipe–first baking it for our supper. At the market although there was molasses—hosanna–no dark Karo corn syrup, a major ingredient, or so I thought. Then remember what they say about necessity and invention: maple syrup was on the shelf where dark Karo could have been. I bravely grabbed a bottle. Spices also had to be changed…instead of the French quatre épices (white pepper, ginger, nutmeg, cloves) I used just cinnamon and nutmeg, with a few twists of the white pepper mill (I brought it from the mainland for general use–doesn’t everybody travel with a white pepper mill?).

For a mercy, the cake was gorgeous. I found myself wondering was it even more delicious than usual…maybe the maple syrup…

The only not-typical-on-vacation equipment you’ll need are the cake pan, a whisk, and a grater (it can have small or largish-holes). The batter goes together in a saucepan—no beaters, no mixing bowl. If you don’t have both cinnamon and nutmeg, use just one–or maybe there’s ground ginger. And why not a smidge of black pepper if there’s no white?

Forgive the vulgarity but I have to say, easily composed, light in texture, deep in flavor, OMG this is great cake!

Fresh Ginger Cake Away from Home
Makes 8 servings

Popped into the oven in—I timed it—22 minutes.

*Fresh ginger root the size of an egg, unpeeled if skin is tender
½ cup water
2 sticks (8 ounces) butter, preferably unsalted, plus 2 tablespoons for the pan
½ cup firmly packed light brown sugar (any sugar will do)
¼ cup light molasses
¼ cup maple syrup
1 large egg
1½ cups all-purpose flour, plus 1-2 tablespoons for the pan
1 teaspoon combined cinnamon, nutmeg, white pepper or other sweet spices
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt (scant, if butter is salted)
Sifted powdered sugar, whipped cream, or Chocolate Frosting, optional

Set the oven to 350 degrees F.

Butter and flour an 8-cup baking pan (8-inch square)…rap the pan on the sink to knock out excess flour.

Grate the ginger preferably on a medium-fine blade, but whatever grater you have—lacking a grater, chop till fairly fine.

To the water in a medium-largish (2-quart) saucepan, cut in the butter in thinnish pieces. Over medium heat, melt the butter without letting the water boil. Remove from the burner and whisk in sugar, molasses, syrup, egg, then ginger (discard any strings the whisk might gather).

Measure the flour by lightly spooning into a clear pint- or quart-size measuring pitcher. Add the spices, baking soda, and salt, whisk until dark spices are blended in.

Add flour mixture to the saucepan and whisk until smooth, a minute or two.

Smooth batter into the cake pan, rap gently on the counter to knock out any air bubbles.

Bake in the center of the oven until the air is fragrant with ginger cake–the cake has pulled away from the sides of the pan and the top is springy to the touch–about 35 minutes.

Cool 10-15 minutes, then turn out onto a serving plate.

Serve warm or cooled with or without a finish—best the day of baking but good the next day, if there’s any left.

*To buy and store fresh ginger root, choose a large piece that is PLUMP AND HEAVY FOR ITS WEIGHT (full of juice), with skin that’s smooth and firm, not wrinkled–avoid pieces touched with mold. Don’t wash but tuck in a resealable plastic bag, press out all air, and store in the refrigerator ‘s crisper drawer. When you cut off a piece, blot the end dry. It will keep weeks.

The original cake recipe first published in Economy Gastronomy…then Food52 Genius Recipes, Ten Speed Press, 2015.

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