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SOCAL STYLE / Entertaining

The Elusive Black Gingerbread

Autumn's Cool Days Trigger Warm Memories of Sugar and Spice

November 15, 1998|BRENDA BELL | Brenda Bell last wrote an essay about dreams for the magazine

When the weather turns cool, I get a hankering for gingerbread. Like a goose heading south, I'm drawn irresistibly to the supermarket, where I purchase the only jar of Grandma's molasses that I will buy all year long. I bring it home to the inevitable chorus of "Oh, no! It's gingerbread time!"

Don't ask me why my children dislike gingerbread. It's as mysterious as my seasonal longing for it, as predictable as what follows next. Soon after the procurement of molasses, I bake a pan of gingerbread. It emerges from the oven fragrant with cinnamon and ginger, burnished a deep brown like a shiny old shoe. The crack down the middle is perforated with toothpick holes where I have repeatedly tested for doneness too long in coming.

I set the pan on the kitchen counter to cool while I stir the vanilla sauce that my mother always served with gingerbread. As a child, I loved this combination so much that I once asked her to make it for my birthday. The guests at my slumber party had to eat gingerbread and sauce instead of cake and ice cream, and some of them weren't too happy about it. I didn't care.

My birthday is in autumn, or what passes for autumn in Southern California, so the timing was right. I would never eat gingerbread in high summer--just as I would never touch asparagus in November. Don't ask me why. In a funny indie movie titled "Last Night at the Alamo," the protagonist--an aging high school football hero whose rakish cowboy hat conceals a growing bald spot--bemoans the razing of his favorite bar to make room for condos. "It ain't the way it's supposed to be," he mutters, and you know it's not just the bar he's talking about. Baking gingerbread in warm weather ain't the way it's supposed to be either.

Truth to tell, the gingerbread at our house was never exactly on the mark. It was one of the culinary Holy Grails that my parents endlessly sought, like the corn bread turkey dressing and boiled custard they remembered from my grandmother's kitchen but could never seem to replicate. They got their gingerbread recipe from Alice, who'd been my grandmother's favorite cook for many years. But like most country cooks, she was fuzzy on measurements--a "glass" of this, a "spoon" of that. My parents said that when Alice made her gingerbread, her thin batter cooked up so dense and dark that it was nearly black. Theirs never did, and though it tasted fine to me, they remained dissatisfied.

From time to time, I've searched for the original source of Alice's gingerbread and discovered some interesting recipes in old regional cookbooks. In the South, gingerbread was often made with bacon fat and sorghum syrup; in the North, chicken fat was an economical substitute for shortening. There are wheatless, eggless and sugarless versions--the last useful during wartime. In my secondhand copy of "All Maine Cooking," someone scrawled the ingredients for lemon sauce--almost identical to my mother's sauce--next to a concoction called "molasses pudding," which is made with blueberries. I still haven't found the mythic black gingerbread that was the stuff of my parents' memories.

But where was I? Oh, yes, in my own kitchen, cutting a piece of warm gingerbread, which I proceed to drown in sauce. Then another. Seduced by the spicy smell, my children sometimes eat a few bites, then leave the rest for me. In a few days--I blush to say how few--it will all be gone. Then my desire for homemade gingerbread is sated, finished for another year.

That's the way it's supposed to be. Don't ask me why.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

OLD-FASHIONED GINGERBREAD WITH VANILLA SAUCE

1/2 cup butter

1/2 cup sugar

1 egg, well-beaten

1 cup dark molasses

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground clove

1 1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup boiling water

*

Sauce:

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1/2 cup sugar

1 cup water

3 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Salt

*

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream butter and sugar in large bowl until fluffy. Add egg and molasses, mixing well. Sift together dry ingredients and blend into mixture in bowl. Add hot water and beat until smooth. Pour into greased and floured 9-inch pan and bake 35 to 45 minutes, or until only a few crumbs cling to toothpick inserted in middle. Serve warm or at room temperature with sauce.

Sauce: Stir cornstarch and sugar thoroughly in small saucepan and add water. Bring to boil and cook, stirring until cloudiness disappears, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from heat and add butter and vanilla extract. Stir until butter melts and is blended in. Add pinch of salt and stir. Serve warm. Store covered in refrigerator. (Note: If you prefer lemon sauce, substitute 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice for vanilla extract.)

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Food stylist: Christine Anthony-Masterson

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