Ancient gingerbread recipe holds up

by Brian Clarey | @BrianClarey

NewYork City’s Gramercy Tavern is not a new place — it opened in 1994, which places it as a newcomer in the pantheon of classic New York restaurants — but it adheres to an almost ancient standard in its dogs in the Flatiron District: traditional recipes and techniques that make it one of the most popular restaurants in a city known for great food.

Nowhere is this more evident than in its gingerbread recipe. My mother loves gingerbread. I did not know this about her until just a week ago, right as her birthday approached. So it made perfect sense for me to make her a gingerbread when the day came around.

I suppose it’s noteworthy that I don’t like gingerbread. Or ginger snaps. I can tolerate maybe one or two gingerbread arms or legs every Christmas — I rarely eat the whole cookie. Whatever — I found a great recipe online that dates back to the 18 th century, the house gingerbread recipe for the Gramercy Tavern, old school in every way.

According to the internet, this recipe is similar to the one from Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery, published in 1796, the first recorded use of leavening in a cake.

The dense cake’s easy rise is driven by two ingredients: baking soda, which is dropped into a boiling pot of dark beer and molasses, and baking powder, which is sifted in with the dry ingredients. Baking powder had not been invented in 1796, so the original version was somewhat heavier.

For the recipe I purchased an $8 jar of cardamom, which really stung because I needed only a few shakes of it. Cardamom, a rarified member of the ginger family, dates back to the New Testament. And I needed regular dark molasses, as the recipe stipulated that blackstrap, which was all I had, would not suffice. Blackstrap comes from the third boiling of the sugar cane syrup, while regular molasses comes from the second boiling. The term blackstrap dates back to 1875.

Baking is the most difficult offshoot of the culinary arts, which is why I normally stay away from it. When I do venture into it, I find it’s best to follow the recipe to the letter. The beer/molasses mixture needed to be room temperature before I combined it with the dry ingredients and eggs, so I waited about an hour for that to happen.

I poured everything into a Bundt pan, a newer piece of baking hardware that took off in the United States in the housewife marketing revolution of the 1950s, baked it off at 350 for an hour and served it up still warm with unsweetened whipped cream.

Have I mentioned that I don’t like gingerbread? I don’t. But from the minute I took this sucker out of the oven I was dying to eat it. The sugars from the molasses — and from the white and darkbrown sugar mixture in the batter — had crystallized to form a crust on the outside of the cake that bore a slight glisten. I had my doubts about the unsweetened whipped cream, which at first just sounded ridiculous to me, but it paired so well with the sugary cake, acting almost like a glass of milk, that I’m considering cutting sugar altogether from my whipped-cream procedure.

Before it was all over, I had personally taken down four slices of this cake and made plans to build another one for Thanksgiving.. It is so sublime I’m thinking about filing it into a dessert category I call “Too Good to Serve to Kids.”

I came up with that one around 2005, when I realized that, to a kid, a Hershey’s Kiss and a Belgian truffle are essentially the same thing.

Find the recipe for Gramercy Tavern Gingerbread Cake at