We all associate warm spices with the winter holiday season. Cinnamon, cloves, ginger and nutmeg start to appear in pumpkin pie form in early November. And as a combination of scents, it signals coziness or “hygge” to our brains, relaxing us into making poor choices like ugly sweater buying and supporting an industry of “pumpkin spice” everything. But how is it that this combination of spices became foundational?
Before Christmas became a holiday, Egyptians used the fragrant material imported from the Spice Islands of Indonesia to embalm the dead. For Greeks and Romans, they were viewed as a luxury, a way to display wealth and weren’t necessarily attached to religious rites. By the medieval period, historical research shows that spices, like herbs, were part of health regimens and often were ingested in seasonal combinations.
For anyone who relishes a pumpkin spice latte, it should come as no surprise that in the cold and wet winter weather, warming spices were thought to warm the body and keep colds and flu at bay. Spices continued to be too expensive for regular folk to use on a daily basis. But once Christmas begins to be celebrated, winter health advice combines with holiday indulgence, and it becomes more common for cooks to add the aromatic warming spices to sauces and eventually in baked goods and puddings and what we recognize as gingerbread.
“Food is the vital way we celebrate anything that matters. It's how we mark the connections between us, how we celebrate life.” This statement from Nigella Lawson’s book “Feast” couldn’t be more apropos for those of us who are gathering with friends and family during this holiday season. Back in 2004 when that book was released, I interviewed Nigella. Even after my prep for the interview was done, I couldn’t put the book down, and I found myself unexpectedly flirting with her “Chocolate Gingerbread” recipe. I kept reading it over and over. The addition of chocolate chips to the gingerbread batter seemed an interesting addition. Often chocolate acts to tamp down sweetness. The instructions to an American baker are odd, adding the baking soda to the liquid, for example, or lining a roasting pan with parchment for a batter. But most intriguing is her description of the baked cake: “It will be slightly damp underneath the set top and that's the way you want it.”
I had to try it. That holiday season, I made her cake over and over, but I made one key adjustment. Instead of serving it with her icing, made with ginger ale, by the way, I decided to serve it with a dollop of lemon curd instead. Eventually I started making trifles for holiday catering jobs, cutting up the cake and layering it with the curd and whipped cream. In either form, it is a perfect holiday treat.
Nigella’s Chocolate Gingerbread from “Feast”
- 1 ½ sticks unsalted butter
- 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons superfine sugar
- ¾ cup golden syrup or light or dark corn syrup
- 3/4 cup black treacle or molasses
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 2 teaspoons ground ginger
- ½ - 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, optional (Evan’s addition)
- 1 ¼ teaspoons baking soda
- 2 tablespoons warm water
- 2 eggs
- 1 cup milk
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa
- 6oz package or 1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
- Preheat the oven to 325F.
- Tear off a big piece of parchment paper to line the bottom and sides of a roasting pan of approximately 12 x 8 x 2 inches deep.
- In a decent-sized saucepan, melt the butter along with the sugars, golden syrup, treacle or molasses, cloves, cinnamon, ground ginger and pepper if using.
- In a cup dissolve the baking soda in the water.
- Take the saucepan off the heat and beat in the eggs, milk and soda in its water.
- Sift the flour and cocoa into the wet mixture and beat with a wooden spoon to mix.
- Fold in the chocolate chips, pour into the lined pan and bake for about 45 minutes until risen and firm. It will be slightly damp underneath the set top and that's the way you want it.
- Serve with whipped cream and/or lemon curd. It’s pretty great with ice cream too.
Evan Kleiman’s Lemon Curd
- 2 whole eggs
- 2 egg yolks
- ½ cup sugar
- ½ cup lemon juice
- 2 T. unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
- Whisk together eggs, yolks, sugar, lemon juice in a heavy saucepan.
- Add the butter and whisk over low heat.
- Whisk the mixture constantly as it heats, switching to a heat proof spatula to get into all the corners of the pan until the curd thickens.
- Once the curd heats up, it thickens quickly.
- Be careful not to overcook or you’ll end up with scrambled eggs.
- Do not let boil — a couple of bubbles are okay.
- Remove the bowl from heat.
- For a super smooth result, strain the mixture into a clean jar or bowl.
- Put plastic wrap over it so that it touches the curd and refrigerate.