After fruitcake, I can’t think of anything more Christmas-y than gingerbread. I meant to make some last year, though as longtime readers of joepastry.com might remember, I was interrupted by Mrs. Pastry’s sudden and unwelcome trip to the hospital, where she remained for some six weeks waiting for the metaphorical bun she was carrying to complete its bake cycle. Of course that “bun” now bears a far stronger resemblance to one of those massive Medieval fruitcakes I mentioned last week: short, blunt and rounded, tipping the scales at some 22 pounds.
Though now that I think about it, the gingerbreads from the Medieval era weren’t exactly lightweights either. Though not as big as fruitcakes they were at least as dense, being made primarily of breadcrumbs stuck together with honey. So in that sense they weren’t really “breads” at all, more like confections that were spiced in various ways (interestingly, not always with ginger). Modern American gingerbreads are by contrast very cake-like, which reflects the evolution of gingerbread in Europe and the British Isles toward a lighter, more refined sort of treat. Today of course you can find gingerbreads of virtually any formulation and texture, from incredibly thin and crispy cookie-like items to chewy and/or crumbly inches-thick cakes.
But for all that it’s rare for people to get too terribly excited about gingerbread in the modern Christmas season. Most of the time it’s relegated to the very back of the yuletide treat heap, well behind the seasonally-tinted white chocolate-dipped Oreos, somewhere right around the, er…fruitcake. I say: no more! Not this year, anyway. This week I’m making this, a classic American sort of gingerbread device that’s great for cookies. What’s so American about it? For one because it contains molasses instead of honey or English treacle. For two because…oh well darn it I can only think of one think right now. But in case you were about to complain that this preparation calls for, among other things, a full cup of the Devil’s own shortening, I invite you to relax. You can simply substitute butter and all will be well. However the shortening version is far superior should you wish to make tree ornaments or gingerbread houses instead of “eating” cookies (unlike the butter, the shortening won’t go rancid). It’s all up to you.