It’s a gingerbread time of year. My cousin Christopher sent me a note this past week asking about Grammy’s gingerbread, feeling like a little spicy dark cake would help round out his snowbound New York life.

What? I did not yet have this on the blog? I couldn’t believe I had not posted it yet, but then I remembered why: Conflicting hand-written recipes. Which was the real one?

Steph eating Fallen GingerbreadAs it turns out, the pan was the clue; only one recipe specified the correctly shaped baking pan. Grammy made her gingerbread in a bundt or tube pan, creating a round cake with a big hole in the middle. If you were serving this for any sort of occasion, that big hole was a perfect “bowl” for a pile of whipped cream.

That’s not what made this gingerbread stick, though. What I remember best about this O-shaped gingerbread was the lament. Almost every time Grammy made it, her gingerbread fell. A sunken crease deflated the ring, and Grammy wondered what on earth had gone wrong. According to her, this dessert was a failure every time. She’d apologize, she’d agonize, she’d throw her hands up–ignoring the fact that everyone loved her gingerbread.

I envisioned fixing Grammy’s perennially collapsed gingerbread, solving its issues. But really, why? It tastes delicious. It’s an excellent foil for whipped cream and for homemade applesauce. It always stays moist, a challenge for many gingerbreads.

So rather than say the cake needs fixing, let’s just call it like we see it: Fallen gingerbread. Go ahead and smile when you see that crease. Tell people this is exactly the way the cake should be. And if your cake DOESN’T fall, shoot me a note and tell me what you did differently!

Fallen Gingerbread from Baking Family

Fallen Gingerbread

Serves 6-8

  • ½ cup butter (1 stick) at room temperature
  • 1½ cups brown sugar
  • 1 egg, well-beaten
  • 1½ cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon ginger
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup molasses
  • ½ cup boiling water

Preheat oven to 375°F. Butter and flour a 10-inch tube or bundt pan. (I’d suggest you do this even if the pan is nonstick.)

Tip: Just move creamed butter and sugar aside, beat egg in the same bowl before combining all

In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar. Add the egg. Sift all dry ingredients together; mix water and molasses. Add the dry and the wet alternately to the butter and sugar mixture, about half of each at a time.

Pour batter into the pan, and transfer to the oven. Bake the cake for 35-40 minutes, or until a cake tester, skewer or broom straw inserted in the middle comes out clean. Let cool for 15 minutes in pan, then loosen around the edges and turn out onto a serving platter. Serve either warm or at room temperature.

Ah, end of the first week of the new year. Plum pudding? Done. Custard sauce? Jar licked clean. Cookie tin? Cleaned and put away (okay, so it’s in the drying rack).

Sweet tooth? Still there.

There is still chocolate left in this house, very good chocolate. This season is so wonderful for citrus, though, that my thoughts drift toward a dessert I loved to make in the mid-1990s: Clementines soaked in muscat wine. Back then, I worked for Hay Day Country Farm Markets. Clementines were extremely seasonal, arriving from Spain after Thanksgiving. Great excitement when the produce manager gave the nod: The clementines had met his quality standards. Those standards meant there was an end to the season too, with the crop eventually running too small and sour for Hay Day to carry. Now clementines are ubiquitous — and are still a great midwinter treat.

The wine I first used was Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise, a not-too-sweet fortified French dessert wine with enough acidity to keep the floral overtones from taking over. Now I make this with an American cousin of Beaumes-de-Venise, an orange muscat wine called Essencia made by Quady Vineyards in California.* I’m giving you both options because who knows how easy it is to find either one where you are. Whichever you use, the blend of clementines with wine is virtuous enough to pass for post-holiday dessert deprivation while still being a wonderful sweet.

I made this dessert often when I was working for Hay Day and living in downtown Greenwich, Connecticut. Southern New England winters can be icy and dark. One particularly snowy, cold and gray winter, I fought back by leaving little white Christmas lights strung around my glassed-in porch until the spring time-change. My pals Eliza and Doug were passing through — January, maybe, or the dread February — and stopped for dinner. I don’t recall the main part of the meal, yet I remember serving them clementines, slightly warm, plumped up with a mixture of orange juice and Quady’s Essencia. We sat in the sparkle of candles and those fierce little stringed lights, looking at a dark and snowy streetscape, smelling flowers and tasting sunshine.

Sunny Clementines from Baking Family

Sunny Clementines

Serves 4

  • 5 or 6 clementines, peeled and sectioned, as much white pith removed as possible
  • 3/4 cup muscat dessert wine such as Quady Essencia or Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise
  • 1/4 cup fresh orange juice

Before dinner, put clementines and wine in a saucepan and stir together; heat over medium heat JUST until liquid starts to simmer. Turn off heat, add orange juice and cover the pan. At the end of dinner, remove the pan lid, ladle clementines and sauce into small fancy bowls and serve alongside a glass of the wine you used in the dessert. (If when you go to serve them you find the clementines have cooled too much, turn on the heat for a couple of minutes. Make sure that the mixture does not come to the boil.)

*Quady now also makes something called Electra, which I ran into when a wine-shop owner insisted that it was “the new Essencia.” Uh, no, it’s not. Electra is a pale, light-alcohol ghost of the good stuff. Leave it on the store shelf.

The dessert hotline rang today — well, actually it was the Christmas-cookie baking hotline. “I got sea salt in my community-supported agriculture share — is it okay to use in making cookies?”

The short answer — if the cookie dough is already made and in the fridge — is “sure!” To some extent, salt is salt. That is particularly true if you have two small children, a more-than-fulltime job, it’s December 19 and you have cookies ready to bake. Onward and upward, Lynn!

The longer answer — for the next batch of cookies — is “I’d save the sea salt for cooking protein or veggies, and for using at the table.”

A couple of years ago Cook’s Illustrated, God love ’em, did an extensive review of the saltiness of salts, and how salts function in cooking. They discovered that not only is the salinity by volume different between table salt (like Morton’s in the round blue box) and kosher salt, but that kosher salt brands differ from each other, mostly because they have larger or smaller crystals that take up more or less space.

CI did not spend any time on sea salt, however, as an ingredient; they pointed out that the nuances of sea-salt flavor get lost in cooking. I’d add that given the explosion of the sea-salt market just in the past couple of years, it’s a WAG as to the salinity — or crystal size — of the sea salt that YOU happen to have. Use it for roasting fish or fowl, or at the table as a finishing sprinkle.

I happen to like to use a fine-grained kosher salt for all my cooking — baking as well as roasting or souping or sauteing. I’ve got a little container by the stove, it’s easy to grab a pinch, and the salt has no additives that will give an off flavor to anything. I use a fine-grained salt so that it will disperse and dissolve easily no matter how dry a batter I’m making. (For example, a cookie dough is drier than a cake batter; gotta give the salt a fighting chance to spread its goodness.) Given that I use Morton’s kosher salt, that probably means I am undersalting a bit when I follow a recipe to the letter. Whatever. I have not noticed any ill-effects in the baking, moussing and souffleing that’s been going on here this past year.

Gram’s recipes were no doubt written for table salt. So please note: I use kosher salt in the recipes on this blog. And if there’s a recipe that calls for a ton of salt, or uses salt differently — like fleur de sel caramels — I’ll be really clear what kind of salt I’m using.

As for the Christmas cookie hotline, it’s still open…

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